The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 8. Ormond
Close upon this August followed the plague in New York. Brown was then living with Dr.Smith in Pine Street, and Smith, firm in the opinion that yellow fever could not be contagious, insisted upon taking into the house a stricken young Italian. Of the three only Brown escaped death. He thus came hand-to-hand with a hard reality, and, like other men of many dreams and few experiences, was deeply impressed by it. The effect upon his work, hoever, of this month of pestilence may be easily overstated. Five years before, Brown’s family had left Philadelphia for a time to escape the great plague of 1793, and Brown had put memories of that visitation into The Man at Home, in The Weekly Magazine, and the earliest chapters of Arthur Mervyn, both written before his removal to New York. Curiously enough, the Dr. Stevens of the novel, by his hospitality of Mervyn, behaves much as did the Dr. Smith of reality, but invention was before fact. And when, in December, 1798, Brown wrote Ormond (1799), he not only laid his scene in Philadelphia in 1793, but he borrowed a whole chapter from The Man at Home. What the plague had been to Brown in 1793 it remined: a chapter in the annals of his native city, mysterious, the stuff of passion, and therefore fully congenial to his temper and ideals of art. He used it with sombre and memorable detail, as a background for mental or social ills.