The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 7. Wieland
With these opinions, and his apprenticeship already served, Brown took up his residence in New York during the summer of 1798. In two ardent years, which were more social than any that had before, Brown did all his best work. The single month of August served to produce Wieland, which made a stir and is still commonly held his masterpiece. The source of its plot has been shown to be, in part, the actual murder of his whole family by a religious fanatic, “Mr. J—— Y——,” of Tomhannock, New York, in December, 1781. To this Brown added the mysteries of spontaneous combusion and ventriloquism to make up the “contexture of facts capable of suspending the faculties of every soul in curiosity.” These were for the vulgar. The apparent scene of action is laid upon the banks of the Schuylkill; this was patriotism. But the real setting is somewhere in the feverish climate of romantic speculation, and the central interest lies in the strange, unreal creatures “of soaring passions and intellectural energy,” Wieland, crushingly impelled to crime by a mysterious voice which, however, but germinates seeds of frenzy already sleeping in his nature, and Carwin, the “biloquist,” a villain who sins, not as the old morality had it, because of wickedness, but because of the driving power of the spirit of evil which no man can resist and from which only the weak are immune. These were cases of speculative pathology which Brown had met in his morbid twilights, beings who had for him the reality he knew best, that of dream and passion. It is the fever in the climate which lends the book, in spite of awkward narrative, strained probabilities, and a premature solution, its shuddering power. Here at least Brown was absorbed in his subject; here at least he gave a profound unity of effect never equalled in his later works.