Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly: The American Individual in an Age of Transition

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents


1. The Creation of a New American Gothic

2. The Dichotomy between the Picturesque and the Perilous American Landscape

3. Edgar Huntly’s Quest for Knowledge of his Inner Self and Mankind

4. The Crisis of Epistemology: A Lesson in Ambiguity




The beginnings of an independent American prose fiction lie in the post-revolutionary era of the early American republic. In the process of claiming its political freedom from Great Britain and displacing the old patriarchal order, the nation had asserted the principle of individualism. According to the Declaration of Independence, the chief task of a democratic government was to secure each man’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, despite this stable foundation of revolutionary ideals, the United States faced severe political and social struggles in achieving a balance between the interests of the individual citizen and public welfare. During the 1780s and 1790s, America underwent a remarkable socioeconomical transformation. In the face of an expanding liberal market capitalism, a controversy between agriculture and industry began to develop. A traditional land-based class stood in opposition to a newly emerging liberal, money-based society. Popular interests drifted apart and manifested themselves in the bitter party struggle between Federalists and Republicans. While the first argued for governmental control of individualism and encouraged the growth of commerce and manufacturing, the latter favored an agrarian ideal and aimed at limiting governmental intervention to promote personal freedom and individualism.

Born in Philadelphia in 1771, Charles Brockden Brown experienced the framing of the federal constitution at the State House and observed the social and political developments arising from the government’s efforts to achieve order without sacrificing individual liberty. Among the nation’s emerging novelists, he stands out as the first American to choose novel writing as a professional career. Within the brief period of three years, the young Philadelphian published six novels. The remarkable complexity of these narratives stands in stark contrast to the clear-cut didacticism of other early American novels, such as William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy or Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple. In literary histories, Charles Brockden Brown appears as a representative of the American Enlightenment, however, his fiction presents a dark, sceptical view of American life which reaches beyond the political optimism of the early republic. Created at the end of the 18th century, his texts are transitional works that contain elements of enlightened Rationalism as well as characteristics of Gothic Romanticism.

Charles Brockden Brown’s fourth novel Edgar Huntly, written in 1799, reflects the political debate on individualism and the philosophical discourse about human nature in the post-revolutionary era. In its depiction of a young sleepwalker’s search for self-knowledge on the American frontier, the novel presents America’s crisis of epistemology in an age of transition, as its narrative shifts in between Europe and America, civilisation and wilderness, consciousness and unconsciousness, uncertainty and knowledge.

1. The Creation of a New American Gothic

In European literary history, the term “Gothic” was first applied to a type of romantic fiction written during the late 18th and early 19th century. The genre reached its first peak of popularity in the 1790s through the extremely successful novels of England’s first best-selling author Ann Radcliffe. European Gothicism arose out of an atmosphere of societal unravelling. As the period of Romanticism emerged in the late 18th century, the rational ideology of the Enlightenment was questioned. Gothic novelists tried to oppose the established value system and to offer a new conception of the relationship between the human, the natural and the devine. The tales were mostly set in the medieval period in a ruined castle or convent. The stock characteristics of the genre included flat, stereotypical characters, supernatural elements, obscure prophecies, an emphasis on evoking terror and sentimental language.

In the preface “To the Public” of his novel Edgar Huntly, Charles Brockden Brown called for the creation of a national literature independent and distinct from European fiction. He alerts his readers to the cultural function of an American literature:

the field of investigation, opened to us by our own country, should differ essentially from those which exist in Europe ... It is the purpose of this work ... to exhibit a series of adventures, growing out of the condition of our country[1]

While his contemporaries experimented with the forms of the sentimental and the picaresque novel, Brown, who admired the writings of William Godwin and Ann Radcliffe, was influenced by the genre of the Gothic novel. However, he rejected the usual European characteristics of “Puerile superstition and exploded manners; Gothic castles and chimeras”[2] and assimilated the genre to a contemporary, recognizable American environment: “The incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of the western wilderness, are far more suitable”[3]. Instead of achieving Gothic effects through supernatural elements, Brown explores the natural terror of the American frontier. Although the wilderness beyond Solesbury seems to possess a surreal, nightmarish quality through the author’s use of hyperbolic language, obscure plot twists and the occurance of strange events, the reader is only presented with real elements of horror: dark caverns, panthers, Indian savages, etc. Transforming the Gothic novel to suit American demands, Brown had understood the true effect of Gothicism long before Poe would reach his famous thesis “that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul”[4].

Furthermore, nature’s lack of paternal order and social structures has a terrifying aspect. Brown investigates the dark, chaotic recesses of the American wilderness. By presenting the landscape as a map of the human mind, the author probes into parts of the unconsciousness that lie beyond rationality. As the scholar David Punter already suggests in his interpretation of the novel Wieland: “It is this dethronement of reason which is the main source of terror”[5].

To transgress the frontier between the conscious and the subconscious, Brown uses somnambulism, which was considered a mysterious, mental illness prior to the age of modern psychology. Sleepwalking temporarily disables the super ego and prevents rational self-reflexiveness. The human psyche is reduced to the id which can now release suppressed emotions, e.g. grief, as in the case of Clithero who unconsciously sleepwalks to the elm tree where he bitterly sobs over his assault on his patroness Mrs. Lorimer and the loss of Clarice. The horror of somnambulism lies in the fact that it shatters the belief of rational self-control. Towards the end of the novel, Edgar Huntly realises that this deficiency mocks the idea of a reasonable human being: “Disastrous and humiliating is the state of man! By his own hands, is constructed the mass of misery and error in which his steps are forever involved.”[6]

In contrast to the ending of the European Gothic romance, in which supernatural terror is substituted by love or revealed as a hoax, the natural terror of the landscape and the subconscious in Brown’s American Gothic novel never ends.

To juxtapose American and European Gothicism, Charles Brockden Brown presents Clithero Edny’s intradiagetic narration of his European past as a foil to Edgar Huntly’s story. Set in 18th century Ireland, the tale is constructed in European conventions of the Gothic. The orphaned proletarian Clithero is the stereotypical Gothic outsider who violates against the hierarchical order of society by attempting to marry the niece of his aristocratic patroness Mrs. Lorimer. The latter resembles the stock character of the virtuous heroine. Her one-dimensional evil twin brother Wiatte is cast in the role of the tyrannical male who is tormenting his sister and her lover Sarsefield. In the dark, corrupt urban space of the city, Clithero accidently kills the villain. As an emotional overreacher, he is driven by the crazy conviction that he must also kill his foster mother, before the news of the death of her twin will put an end to her life. This idea has been inspired by Mrs. Lorimer’s superstitiuous belief that her fate is intertwined with that of her brother. The horror of the tale lies within the superego of Clithero which can be identified with the voice of his patroness. Clithero is incapable of acting as a free individual because he has internalized the hierarchical order of society.


[1] Brown, Charles Brockden. Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker. New York: Penguin, 1988 (1799). 3.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Poe, Edgar A. Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque., Vol. 1. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1840.

[5] Punter, David. The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day. London: Longman, 1980. 193.

[6] Brown., 268.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly: The American Individual in an Age of Transition
Free University of Berlin
American Literature in the 18th Century -Early American Novel
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Charles Brockden Brown's novel Edgar Huntly reflects the political debate on individualism and the philosophical discourse about human nature in the post-revolutionary era. This paper focusses on Brown's assimilation of the European Gothic genre to the natural terror of the American wilderness, the dichotomy of Picturesque scenery and the landscape as perilous challenge, the crisis of epistemology in an age of transition.
Charles, Brockden, Brown, Edgar, Huntly, American, Individual, Transition, American, Literature, Century, American, Novel
Quote paper
Natalie Lewis (Author), 2004, Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly: The American Individual in an Age of Transition, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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