THE ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN LITERARY TRADITION (PART 5)

W I E L A N D

The following work is delivered to the world as the first of a series of performances, which the favorable reception of this will induce the writer to publish. His purpose is neither selfish nor temporary, but aims at the illustration of some important branches of the moral constitution of man. Whether this tale will be classed with the ordinary or frivolous sources of amusement, or to be ranked with the few productions of whose usefulness secures to them a lasting reputation, the reader must be permitted to decide.

-Advertisement, Wieland, B.C.B., September, 1798.


“From Virtue’s blissful paths away

The double-tongued are sure to stray;

Good is a forth-right journey still,

And mazy paths but lead to ill.”

-Introductory inscription to Wieland.


That he tried the impossible and that he failed; that he had disavowed his own art before his untimely death of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-nine; that he hardened from a wild disciple of the Enlightenment, a flagrant Godwinian (“Godwin came and all was light!”), into a pious conservative; that he drew his inspiration from loneliness and male companionship, and that he ceased to be a creative writer when he married; that over his whole frantic, doomed career, the blight of melancholy presides.”

-Leslie Fiedler on Charles Brockden Brown.


Wieland, also known as The Transformation: An American Tale, was first published in 1798 by the ambitious and prolific novelist Charles Brockden Brown, America’s first professional writer and a man who the literary critic Leslie Fieldler dubbed, “the inventor of the American writer.” The novel is noteworthy not just as being one of the earliest works of American fiction but also as the very first American Gothic novel. The story is, as with most gothic tales, dark and extremely bizarre and, just like its predecessor, The Power of Sympathy, it is written in the epistolary style which was popular with many early American novels. Taking place at a unspecified time between the French Indian War and the American Revolutionary War, the plot follows the letters of Clara Wieland who tells a tale of a grotesque series of seemingly impossible events that occurred throughout her early years.

The story begins with Clara’s description of her father, a studious and aloof man of severe religious conviction, who adopted a life of piety and evangelism. This evangelical streak leads the elder Wieland to believe that he must spread his creed to the indigenous peoples of America. He fails utterly at this task and, depressed, withdraws from the world to a modest house with his family. His religious convictions lead him to a life of fastidious prayer which find him oft retreating to a private temple. The structure is detailed in the text thusly:

At the distance of three hundred yards from his house, on the top of a rock whose sides were steep, rugged, and encumbered with dwarf cedars and stony asperities, he built what to a common eye would have seemed a summer house. […] The edifice was slight and airy. It was no more than a circular area, twelve feet in diameter, whose flooring was the rock, cleared of moss and shrubs, and exactly leveled, edged by twelve Tuscan columns, and covered by an undulating dome. […] It was without seat, table, or ornament of any kind.”1

During one of Wieland’s devotional sessions at this spartan temple, his family hears a scream and rushes forth to investigate what has befallen him. They arrive to find the elder Wieland’s arm crushed “as if by some heavy body” and the whole of his form covered over in ghastly burns, though his scalp and feet remained curiously unscathed. The family is shocked and rush to what little is left of the elder Wieland to his room where he waxes insensible and shortly thereafter succumbs to a illness brought on by his wounds and dies. The killer, whether mortal man (or woman) or some phantasmal entity, profane or divine or both, remains a mystery. His wife, dies shortly thereafter. Brown describes Mrs. Wieland’s end, thusly, “The shock which this disastrous occurrence occasioned to my mother, was the foundation of a disease which carried her, in a few months, to the grave.”2

The elder Wieland was not the only member of the family who was intensely religious, however, as his wife (before her untimely end) was also a woman of devout faith, though her creed differed markedly from her husband as Wieland, Sr. was inspired by the Albegensians whereas Ms. Wieland was influenced primarily by the Zizendorf Moravians. The Albegensians, also known as Cathars, were a southern French protestant sect who formed in opposition to what they perceived as the spiritual and moral decay of the Catholic Church; the name Albegensian (alternatively, Albigensian) came from the city of Albi, France, where the movement initially formed. The Cathars, who referred to themselves as the Bons Hommes (or Good Men), were theologically, extremely divergent from The Catholics, as they rejected monotheism (one God) and instead posited that there were two gods, one good, one evil; for them, the good deity was personified by the God of the New Testament, whereas the evil deity was taken to be the God of the Old Testament; this, in direct contravention to the ostensible monotheism of Catholicism. Cathars further believed that, because the God of the Old Testament was the creator of the world, the world, and everything within it, must be, of necessity, evil, tainted by his essence; this included, of course, Man himself. Due to this belief, the Cathars also held to anti-sacerdotal principals and thus rejected the central position of a interventionist priesthood, instead, opting for a leadership body composed of spiritual ascetics with few set guidelines pertaining to worship. Naturally, this was invidious to the Catholics, so much so that they would go on to wage a crusade against the dissident sect after a murder involving a papal legate that all but wiped the Cathars off the face of the earth.

In contrast, the beliefs of the Zizendorf Moravians (also known as the Unity of the Brethern) was a creation of the 15th century Bohemian Reformation and formed their creed around three major ecumenical creeds, those being, the trinitarian Apostles’ Creed, the salvation affirming Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed, which affirms the “Shield of the Trinity.” The central characteristics of the “spirit” of the church, as described by Moravian Bishop, Clarence Shawe3 were: simplicity, happiness, unintrusiveness, fellowship and the ideal of service. The Moravians then, in contrast to the Cathars, might be rightly thought of as a imminently more positive, fraternal and optimistic movement (despite the pessimism concerning humanity inherent in all major strains of Christianity which might be reasonably described as such) whereas the Cathars took Christian pessimism to its utmost extremes. This both attests to the authors considerable historical knowledge and also is a swift (if somewhat arcane) way to lay out the personal philosophies of the novel’s early side characters.

In the character of Catharic solitude, Wieland, Sr. is a solemn, aloof man, given over to independence and intense devotion in both his mundane and spiritual life, whereas his wife is much more sociable and light-hearted (at least until her husbands untimely and inexplicable demise) though just as devout. Brown describes Ms. Wieland’s religious habits thusly: “The character of my mother was no less devout [than Mr. Wieland, Sr.]; but her education had habituated her to a different mode of worship. The loneliness of their dwelling prevented her from joining an established congregation; but she was punctual in the offices of prayer, and in the performance of hymns to her Saviour, after the manner of the disciples of Zinzendorf. My father refused to interfere in her arrangement. His own system was embraced not, accurately speaking, because it was the best, but because it had been expressly prescribed to him.”4 Clearly, the careful focus and lengthy description of the character’s religious habituation points to some kind of commentary the author is attempting to make upon the religious tenor of the times and various ways such beliefs interfaced with society, both positively and negatively (in Brown’s estimation at least). But what is Brown trying here to get at? In summation what one has in the story thus far is two communalistic but extremely divergent religions practiced under the same household, Mrs. Wieland’s being optimistic, Wieland, Sr.’s being pessimistic and the latter receiving the ultimate penalty for it (the fact that Wieland Sr. meets his demise whilst in solitary prayer is obviously not incidental). The religious individualization of both of the elder Wielands was, on Wieland, Sr. account, intentional and desired whilst it was not (at least entirely or largely) desired as far as Mrs. Wieland was concerned. Thus it seems as if Brown is indicting Wieland, Sr. for his rejection of communal interaction, a criticism with which I should certainly agree as history is replete with examples of the problems inherent in extreme societal atomization. The English word “idiot,” for example, derives from the Greek, idios5, meaning “private,” or, “one’s own.” In Athens, any individual (who was able) who did not participate in any official or serious political capacity in the Assembly was dubbed “idiotai,” meaning, “unskilled worker,” and was generally utilized to discern the common folk from the poor (penetes) those of a more elevated social standing (dynatoi). Though the moniker of idiotai was not always deployed as a insult, it certainly could be, as Aristotle remarks in The Athenian Constitution6,Further, [Solon] saw the state often engaged in internal disputes, while many of the citizens from sheer indifference accepted whatever might turn up, he made a law with express reference to such persons, enacting that any one who, in a time civil factions, did not take up arms with either party, should lose his rights as a citizen and cease to have any part in the state.”


[—continued in part 6—]


1Brown, Wieland, p. 13

2Brown, Wieland, p. 24

3 Rt Revd C H Shawe, DD (1977), The Spirit of the Moravian Church, London, The Moravian Book Room.

4Brown, Wieland, p. 13-14

5See Liddell-Scott-Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon, entries for ἰδιώτης and ἴδιος.

6Aristotle, Athenian Constitution, 350 BCE, Translated by Sir Fredric G. Kenyon.

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Futurist, artist and published fiction writer whose work asks the question, Of what use is the art which does not ruthlessly seek to force life to imitate it?

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