Monday, February 9, 2015

*Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist, by Charles Brockden Brown

Penguin, 1991
365 pp


According to an account published in two parts in 1796, in 1781, James Yates of New York heard a voice, "a spirit", telling him to destroy his idols. After the Bible went into the fire, he took an axe to his animals. The spirit wasn't quite finished with him yet, saying that there was still his family to consider. Faithful James Yates went on to murder all but one child, then injured his wife before killing her too. He finally relented and killed the last living child after making her dance around the other bodies.  Charles Brockden Brown, who wrote Wieland in 1798, used Yates' story, which he probably assumed readers would be familiar with already,  to create his own tale, which by the way, starts with the same sort of religious mania.

Wieland is billed as America's first Gothic novel, and despite the poor reviews that it's been given by modern readers, I couldn't put this book down. Yes, it's overly florid in language; yes, it's not as well written as it probably should have been (more on this later) but overall, it's an interesting story that, as with its predecessors in my great american novel project, works on more than the just the surface level, a point that several modern readers seemed to have missed when judging this  novel.  Without going into great detail here about philosophical and political thought during this period, the "advertisement" at the book's beginning gives away the fact that Wieland is going to illustrate "some important branches of the moral constitution of man." The idea of  understanding the "moral constitution" or "innate nature" of mankind was thought to be a sort  of precondition for enlightened leaders to be able to establish some kind of system of government that was workable for everyone -- and this at a time when politics was divided between those advocating for a strong, aristocratic central government (Federalists) and those who wanted more local control and expression of the general will (Republicans).  Brown sets up a debate between reason-based Enlightenment thinking vs. other ideas in vogue and also examines the individual vs. society and the important Rousseauian (?) concept of the expression of free will.  He also, through the character of Carwin,  establishes the ongoing fear of foreign intrusion.  All of this is framed in a Gothic story with more than strong hints of the supernatural at work, told via the medium of a letter written by Clara Wieland who has experienced her own share of great terrors.

Briefly, the story goes as follows:

Clara Wieland and her brother Theodore lose their father in some pretty mysterious circumstances based on his on-again/off-again religious mania,  and are raised by an aunt. When they come of age, Theodore marries Clara's childhood playmate Catherine Pleyel; they take up residence in the Wieland family home in Pennsylvania and soon have children. Clara has inherited a house nearby, and the group is often visited by Catherine's brother Henry. The four are inseparable, and spend a great deal of time together in basically what can be described as a perfect utopian existence in the countryside.  All are well educated -- they read classic works together, engage in friendly, rational debate on different issues where each has his or her own stance, put on dramas, and enjoy a generally egalitarian relationship. Clara is generally upbeat while Theodore is much more serious in nature, a little on the darker side, and while their "education had been modelled (sic)  by no religious standard," Theodore has more of a religious side to him than does Clara.

Their quiet, peaceful existence starts to take a downhill turn one night when Theodore is heading to their father's old Temple (where he met his sad end) to retrieve something left behind there. On the path just before the steps leading up to the building, he hears his wife's voice telling him not to go that way. He rushes home, and there's Catherine sitting just where she was when he left, and the others vouch that she'd never left. This incident leaves Theodore a little darker in mood, but when the voice occurs again, this time while Theodore is in Henry's company, it leaves both questioning their own rational judgment, especially Theodore, who becomes more serious and more introspective as time goes on.  The voice continues to make itself known -- to Clara more than once, leaving her extremely unsettled and trying to find an explanation she can understand; to Henry, turning him against Clara, who by now realizes she is in love with Henry.  Things get really bad, though, when one night the voice is heard by Theodore, and the consequences will totally shatter the group's idyllic existence forever.

As noted earlier, Wieland is not the best-written novel for several reasons, one of the biggest being that Brown waits to finish out some plotlines to the very end where he rushes through explanations. The other thing about the writing is that framing the novel as a letter to a friend just doesn't come across as realistic -- it's obviously much more of a narrative form rather than epistolary, several examples of which I've just read.  But on the other hand, I wouldn't have missed this novel for anything.  At surface level, it's a very entertaining story that kept me  turning pages hour after hour, sometimes missing nights of sleep just to find out what happens. Clara gives strong hints that something is going to go terribly wrong, and these little asides are scattered throughout the book. Brown also provides a number of hints as to what's coming through the classical works the men were debating -- something I discovered by looking them up.  The beginning of this novel captures the father's religious mania so thoroughly and so intently that it's downright impossible not to be drawn into his disturbed mind, establishing the stage for what is to come later.  Going underneath the story, though, Wieland offers a brief look at the philosophical and political struggles that were occurring at the time, but which in so many ways continue to have a lot of relevance in our own modern nation.

This book requires a lot of time and a lot energy, but if a potential reader isn't necessarily interested in the underlying philosophical issues, the story itself is also well worth exploring.

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