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Charles Brockden Brown,1771 - 1810

Considered the first important American novelist, Charles Brockden Brown is a transitional figure between the Enlightenment ideals of figures like Benjamin Franklin and the Romanticism of the nineteenth century. Brown was the first American professional man of letters, living off his writing and magazine editing after a brief and failed career in law. Brown was particularly influenced by Samuel Richardson, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft (he was an ardent supporter of women's rights).

Most of Brown's novels are considered gothic, and influenced Poe and Hawthorne, among others. He is particularly noted for having inaugurated a distinctively "American" form of the gothic, which dispensed with European stage props such as windy moors and ruined castles. Lacking a long and evocative local history from which to draw atmosphere, Brown instead imbued the wild American landscape with mystery. Brown liked to experiment with the improbable, the coincidental, and the natural-yet-eerie. For instance, in the opening chapters of his most famous work, Wieland, a religious fanatic spontaneously combusts while praying alone in a temple of his own construction. While this event never receives a natural explanation in the novel, Brown scrupulously footnotes the description of the event with a newspaper citation detailing a reported real spontaneous combustion. Brown's 1805 short story "Somnambulism" is much anthologized.

Brown's thematic interests included women's rights, excessive religious fervor (Brown was himself a lapsed Quaker), moral rectitude, social problems, and the supernatural. He often pursued these themes in a didactic fashion. During his lifetime, Brown not only wrote novels but also edited several important magazines. He also wrote numerous essays and short fiction, which were published in magazines. Brown died at the age of 39.

Major works (with publication year):

Brown also worked on a large two-volume manuscript on geography, which is now lost.


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