In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Charles Brockden Brown

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Influence of Brown
  • Critical Reception
  • Unpublished Sources

American Literature Charles Brockden Brown
Mark L. Kamrath
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0066


Charles Brockden Brown (b. 1771–d. 1810), America’s first novelist, was born into a Philadelphia Quaker family and experienced all the tumult of the Revolutionary era. He attended the Friends Latin School and apprenticed at the law office of Alexander Wilcocks. He later joined a law society and a Belles Lettres Club, where he developed a love of debate. His growing disillusionment with the practice of law and his commitment to being the “champion of injustice” (Clark 1952, 31, cited under Contemporary Reviews) caused him to turn to teaching at the Friends Grammar School and, ultimately, to the pursuit of literary interests. Between 1793 and 1798, Brown read widely, finding himself attracted to ideas that inspired the French Revolution and to radical English Jacobin writers such as William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. His trips to New York City and his involvement with the Friendly Club, which included literary intellectuals such as William Dunlap, Timothy Dwight, Elihu Hubbard Smith, and William Johnson, were followed by a two-year stay in New York. Under these influences, in March 1798 he published Alcuin, a fictional dialogue on women’s rights and education. During this time, as the French Revolution spilled over into the Haitian Revolution, Brown composed and published seven novels (or “romances,” as he understood them) that variously use Gothic and sentimental elements: Wieland; or The Transformation (1798), Ormond; or The Secret Witness (1799), Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793 (1799–1800), Memoirs of Stephen Calvert (serialized 1799–1800), Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker (1799), Clara Howard; in a Series of Letters (1801), and Jane Talbot; a Novel (1801), as he pivoted toward political pamphlet writing, history writing, and periodical editing. He then edited and contributed to The Monthly Magazine and American Review (1799–1800) and The Literary Magazine and American Register (1803–1807), even as he published pamphlets on the Louisiana Purchase. In 1804 he married Elizabeth Linn, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, which led to his dismissal from the local denomination of Quakers. His editing of The American Register, or General Repository of History, Politics, and Science (1807–1809) was accompanied by a political pamphlet critical of Jefferson’s Embargo in 1809. Brown died of tuberculosis in 1810 at the age of thirty-nine. Although regarded as a “genius” by Hawthorne and others, his reputation waned until Cold War literary critics highlighted the psychological dimensions of his novels. Eventually, beginning in the 1980s, the New Historicism and critical approaches that interrogated hierarchies of race, class, gender and sexuality, and nationhood displaced the aesthetic unity of the New Critics, which viewed Brown’s novels as having flawed plots and symbolism. Today, Brown’s letters, novels, poetry, political pamphlets, essays, historical sketches, and other writings are closely studied for their insights into Atlantic world culture, late Enlightenment progressive thinking, and the nexus of historical and fictional writing.

General Overviews

Brown wrote in many genres, and for this reason journal articles and monographs have historically focused on his novels. But this trend has been changing over the last twenty years, and for those who have not read Brown’s works before or want the most up-to-date treatment of Brown’s life and writing, Kamrath 2022 offers a recent synopsis of Brown scholarship and future directions. Barnard, et al. 2019 contains exceptional essays on Brown’s life and numerous writings, along with the reception of his work over the last two centuries. Collections of essays like Barnard, et al. 2004 and Rosenthal 1981 offer good general overviews of Brown’s writing for their respective times.

  • Barnard, Philip, Hillary Emmett, and Stephen Shapiro, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Charles Brockden Brown. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199860067.001.0001

    A “state-of-the-art survey” of Brown’s career, with thirty-five essays. Beginning with his life, the essays examine his novels; the relationship between history and romance; his letters, poetry, and short fiction; and the reception of his work. Also covers topics from Atlantic world philosophy and politics, colonialism, slavery, women’s rights, and human sexuality to the Gothic novel, classical antiquity, and the role of art in Brown’s writing.

  • Barnard, Philip, Mark L. Kamrath, and Stephen Shapiro, eds. Revising Charles Brockden Brown: Culture, Politics, and Sexuality in the Early Republic. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004.

    Using a range of contemporary theoretical lenses, from the New Historicism and postcolonialism to gender and queer theory, this collection “revises” our understanding of Brown in significant ways. Its three-part focus on the era’s political and ideological discourses, Brown’s representation of gender and sexuality, and his “radicalism” in his later years reveal a writer who questioned the status quo and was committed to human rights and social justice his entire life.

  • Kamrath, Mark L. “Prospects for the Study of Charles Brockden Brown.” Resources for American Literary Studies 44.1–2 (2022): 1–49.

    DOI: 10.5325/resoamerlitestud.44.1-2.0001

    Provides an up-to-date review of Brown scholarship and “contemporary turns.” Examines the historical evolution of conference meetings, books, editions, editorial projects, book chapters, and journal articles in Brown criticism. Highlights important library resources and provides commentary on future directions in research as related to historical archives, foreign translations, teaching approaches, digital humanities, and film.

  • Rosenthal, Bernard, ed. Critical Essays on Charles Brockden Brown. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981.

    This older collection of essays, situated against Brown’s early reception, offers illuminating reviews by William Dunlap, William Hazlett, Margaret Fuller, John Greenleaf Whittier, and others about his “genius” before pivoting to critical essays that focus on narrative and thematic concerns in Alcuin, Wieland, Ormond, Arthur Mervyn, Edgar Huntly, Clara Howard, Jane Talbot, and Brown’s later periodical and political pamphlet writing. It contains a selective bibliography of works about Brown.

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