Writers—whether we admit it or not—are influenced by those who precede them.
Though his name is not so familiar as others, Pennsylvania was the birthplace of a man who influenced such varied literary masters as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.
In fact, no less an authority than the Encyclopedia Britannica calls Charles Brocken Brown the “father of the American novel.”
Born in Philadelphia on Jan. 17, 1771 to Quaker parents, Brown was early forced into the study of law by his family. They were unable to stifle his literary ambitions which had been fired by a lifetime of voracious reading and ardent desire to write. He was published as early as the late 1780s and had completed his first novel by 1798.
In his brief career (he died at the age of 39 of consumption) he produced at least eight novels, in addition to short stories, poetry, history and political writings, and served as editor of the Monthly Magazine And North American Review.
His best known novel today is probably Wieland, a gothic romance involving a supposedly inexplicable mystery.
One which should be of more interest to us is Edgar Huntly, which predates Cooper’s introduction of the American Indian into fiction. Peter Kafer, an independent scholar, has linked the roots of this novel to the infamous Walking Purchase of 1737 which forced the Lenape west into the Wyoming Valley and set the stage for the Indian wars later to ravage the settlers along the Susquehanna River.
Van Wyck Brooks called his novels “…singularly original, poetic and impressive.” Brooks says it is easy to see many images in Brown’s novels reappear in Poe’s tales and poetry.
If it were only these so-called gothic novels for which the man is known, it might be enough. But, influenced early in life by Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin and other thinkers, he was also an advocate for the rights of women, education, penal reform and other social issues.
Recognizing him as “the early republic’s most ambitious and accomplished literary figure,” the Charles Brockden Brown Society was founded in 2000 as an international scholarly organization to stimulate interest in his writings and his era. More information on the society is available at http://www.brockdenbrownsociety.ucf.edu/