Note: During my first year as a PhD student, I took a class on novels in the Early Republic. The class looked at authors such as William Hill Brown, Charles Brockden Brown, Susanna Rowson, Hannah Webster Foster, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and others. For the course, we had to write brief responses (2-3 pages) to the novels and discussions. While packing to move recently, I came across some of these responses and thought I would share some of them here over the next couple of posts. I am not altering what I originally wrote, unless it provides more clarity. There may be some questions contained within the posts that I did not have answers for when I wrote the, so I will leave those questions where they are, hoping they will spark conversation about the topic. I wrote today’s post on February 1, 2010. Since then, I have worked on what “American” literature actually entails. Look at my recent post on Susana Rowson’s Charlotte Temple for more.
Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland and William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy use factual events to support their novels. In Wieland, Brockden Brown alludes to “an authentic case” that appears very similar to the fictional work of the novel (3). Likewise, Hill Brown’s novel contains “thinly veiled” references to real life events. These observations cause me to question the role of using factual events with novels of the Early Republic. Do these occurrences appear so that the publisher can sell books? Do they appear to show readers that a novel can be used as didactic tool to explain the nature of humans and their actions? Or, do the authors use them to authenticate their texts as completely American?
At this time (January/February 2010), I do not have answers to these questions, but I do have some thoughts that may lead to answers as the semester progresses. The use of the Morton-Apthorp scandal in Hill Brown’s novel may just arise, as Cathy Davidson says, from his desire to refuse “the voice of public authority to consign all the blame to the woman while the man remained . . . unnamed and innocent” (101-2). Of course, we can see this aspect throughout the novel, but does this supply the only reason for using the scandal? The frontispiece of The Power of Sympathy recreates the death of Apthorp even though the scene represented plays a minuscule role in the novel. Looking at it from this angle, it appears that the use of the scandal, or at least the engraving on the frontispiece, serves as a ploy to sell more books. Davidson discusses the placement of this engraving and relates the role of Isaiah Thomas in the novel’s publication.
Brockden Brown in Wieland, like Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, draws on real life events to construct his novel. He mentions the event in an “Advertisement” that precedes the text. Along with the acknowledgement that the novel shares similarities with John Yates’s case, Brockden Brown promises that the novel’s reception will determine whether or not Carwin’s “memoirs” will be published. The “Advertisement” presents an air of self gain and recognition, even though Brockden Brown writes, “Whether this tale will be classed with the ordinary or frivolous sources of amusement, or be ranked with the few productions whose usefulness secures to them a lasting reputation, the reader must be permitted to decide” (3). Obviously, he wants us to believe that his sole purpose in authoring Wieland is to provide an “illustration of some important branches of the moral constitution of man” (3). However, his claim to release further texts if readers like the novel leads me to view a hint of capitalist greed in his motives.
At the present time, it appears that the use of factual tales in novels from the Early Republic leans in varying directions. Both authors discussed wanted to create didactic texts that employ real events that readers would know about. Beside this educational aim, we can see that sales also play an important role. The Power of Sympathy leads readers to believe that they will discover the sordid details of the Morton-Apthrop scandal, and Wieland sets up, rather blatantly, as the beginning “of a series of performances” (3). Deepening this quandary, Davidson concludes her discussion of Isiah Thomas’s influence on The Power of Sympathy by showing the tensions that appear in novels from the Early Republic between professional readers and critics who think they know what people need and non-professional readers, booksellers, and printers who discovered “what the public actually wanted” (91).
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.