The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VI. Fiction I

§ 5. Charles Brockden Brown

Apparently the time was slowly ripening to the point at which taste begins to support those who gratify it, and it is notable that the first American to make authorship his sole career had already decided for fiction. Charles Brockden Brown came of good Quaker stock long settled in Pennsylvania, where, at Philadelphia, he was born 17 January, 1771. He was a frail, studious child, reputed a prodigy, and encouraged by his parents in that frantic feeding upon books which was expected, in those days, of every American boy of parts. By the time he was sixteen he had made himself a tolerable classical scholar, contemplated three epics—on Columbus, Pizarro, and Cortez—and hurt his health by over-work. As he grew older he read with a hectic, desultory sweep in every direction open to him. With his temper and education, he developed into a hot young philosopher in those days of revolution. He brooded over the maps of remote regions, glowed with eager schemes for perfecting mankind, and dabbled in subterranean lore as an escape from humane Philadelphia. He kept a journal and wrote letters heavy with self-consciousness. Put into a law office by his family, he found that his legal studies only confirmed him in his resolution to be a man of letters. His parents and brothers, who supported him in his adventure, urged him from a path so unpromising, but Brown, though he felt the pressure of their distress, clung stoutly, if gloomily, to the pursuits of literature. He speculated, debated, and wrote for the newspapers. His first identified work, a series of papers called The Rhapsodist, which appeared in The Columbian Magazine, August-November, 1789, glorified the proud and lonely soul.

Little is known of the next few years of his life. In 1793 he seems to have gone to New York to visit his friend Dr. Elihu Hubbard Smith, formerly a medical student in Philadelphia. Removed from the scenes of his old solitude, Brown became less solitary. Smith’s friends, among them S.L. Mitchill, James Kent, and William Dunlap, Brown’s future biographer, who belonged to a club called the Friendly Society, forced the young misanthrope to cast part of his coat. In 1795, after another visit to New York, he began an unidentified work, apparently speculative but not a romance, to “equal in extent Caleb Williams,” a book in which Brown saw “transcendant merits.” In spite of the first ardour which had made him sure he could finish his task in six weeks, he lost faith in its moral utility and never got beyond fifty pages, but he had gradually given up Dr. Johnson for Godwin as his model. July, 1796, saw him cease to be even a sleeping partner in his brother’s counting house. Thenceforth he was nothing but an author.