Friday, May 13, 2016

Somnambulism: A Fragment

Charles Brockden Brown (1771–1810)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Deep Woods in Fall, undated oil on canvas by American artist John Joseph Enneking (1841 - 1916). Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
If you were to extract a hoary and forgotten literary encyclopedia from the dusty shelves of your local research library, chances are you’d find the claim that Charles Brockden Brown was “the first American novelist,” or perhaps “the first American novelist of any note.” Either description is stretching things a bit: there were certainly a number of novels written by Americans and published on either side of the Atlantic before 1798, when Brown finished Wieland: or, The Transformation: An American Tale, and a couple of them were better received and more widely read at the time (such as Susanna Rowson’s long-forgotten Charlotte Temple, far and away the best-selling American novel before Uncle Tom’s Cabin). But, over two hundred years later, Brown remains the only American novelist before Washington Irving whose works are still read and studied and in print, and so we can perhaps safely agree with Joyce Carol Oates’s recent claim that he is “the first American novelist of substance.”

The son of a Philadelphia merchant, Brown was by all accounts a precocious student, writing poetry and essays for newspapers and magazines, becoming an apprentice for a lawyer, and cofounding first a literary organization called the Belles Lettres Club and then the intriguingly named Society for the Attainment of Useful Knowledge—all before he reached the age of twenty. He eventually abandoned his legal studies to embark on a literary career, and between 1798 and 1801 he published six novels—or seven, if one includes Memoirs of Stephen Calvert, serialized over a one-year period and abruptly abandoned.

Now thirty years old, Brown fell in love, married in 1804, ended his short-lived tenure as a novelist, and spent the last decade of his life as founding editor (and, sometimes, sole contributor) of three consecutive literary journals. He also wrote numerous anti-Jeffersonian political tracts, as well as several essays on women’s rights. He died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-nine in 1810.

During his first year of marriage Brown published the story “Somnambulism: A Fragment” in one of the journals for which he served as editor. Many scholars believe that the tale had actually been written earlier, when Brown was drafting his 1799 novel Edgar Huntly, or Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker, which develops more thoroughly several of the same themes and other elements. The plot, a whodunit concerning a baffling murder, is foretold by the fictitious newspaper article that serves as the story’s epigraph. Brown moves the locale to the American frontier and reimagines the crime from the point of view of the alleged suspect. Although the twist ending seems to be given away by the opening extract, Brown adds layers of complexity to the tale itself: the “incontroulable” passions and “vivid” imagination of the narrator, a sudden shift in perspective from Althorpe’s feverishly erratic behavior to an account of the experiences of the nighttime travelers, the appearance of a local “mischief-loving idiot” who loves “to plague and frighten people” in the forest, and the conspicuous ambiguity of the ending. The summary of Brown’s fiction in one modern reference work holds true for this story: “His work is psychologically probing and gives loose rein to a deep curiosity about the forces that prompt human action, especially those pathologies that tend to provoke evil or destroy human happiness.”

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[The following fragment will require no other preface or commentary than an extract from the Vienna Gazette of June 14, 1784. “At Great Glogau, in Silesia, the attention of physicians, and of the people, has been excited by the case of a young man, whose behaviour indicates perfect health in all respects but one. . . .” If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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