THE ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN LITERARY TRADITION (PART 6)

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To better help the reader understand the religious and social criticism and commentary in Wieland, it is pertinent to examine the historical context in which it was written. Brown’s novel was published in 1798 and subsequent republication in 1811 which places the writing of the piece just around the beginning of what has come to be known as The Second Great Awakening (SGC), a period of societal transformation in the early United States which saw a marked surge in the popularity of Protestant revivalism. The moniker of Second Great Awakening was patterned after the Evangelical revival movement dubbed The Great Awakening by US historians which occurred in Britain in the 1730s through the 1740s. Most historians generally place the beginning of the SGC at around 1790 which would mean that Brown would be well acquainted with the rising Protestant zeitgeist. Brown was also a extremely peculiar man and one rather at odds, both with society and with his friends whom he constantly reproached in the most arcane of fashions. In his youth Brown shirked the chance for a profitable law career, opting instead to move to New York and live in the apartments of various radicals and malcontents he had befriended1. Unlike the stereotypical starving artist, constantly hard-up and struggling to make ends meet by some deviance of Fate, Brown was not a social outcast by unbidden circumstance but rather by choice. Brown was also a avid student of Rousseau and William Godwin2 whose Enlightenment fervor permeates his pages. It was likely this peculiar combination of being mired in the Religious fever of the Second Great Awakening and also being imbued with the rationalist energies of two of the Enlightenment’s fiercest champions, which led Brown to his even-keel position, a sort of balancing between two extremes, that of the Old World Convention and extreme collectivism of the Zizendorf Moravians and the New World invention and extreme individualism of Wieland, Sr.’s syncretic Catharism. Further evidence that Brown’s situation of these religious creeds within his work is not merely incidental can be found in the fact that the novel begins in 1787, the very same date upon which the Constitution of the United States was created and it was this creation which opened up the doors for the settlers to new horizons of spiritual and philosophical experimentation. As Lara E. Gibson writes, “The spiritual climate just beginning to surface in Wieland reflects an American quest for individualism. Given the events of the novel, we may interpret that individualism as a form of savagery in which the civilized institutions and rituals of the old world are refused in favor of a diverse and still uncultivated American conception of religion. Wieland’s son, Wieland, Jr., carries his beliefs to such an extreme that self-styled spirituality becomes an abuse of religious freedom.”3

We will come to Wieland, Jr., and Brown’s subsequent critiques, somewhat later, until then it is prudent to explain the latter occurrences of the novel. After the death of the elder Wieland’s, Clara and her brother, Wieland, Jr., are left traumatized, confused, directionless and orphaned. Luckily for them, they were not without caring arms into which to fall.

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. My brother and myself were children at this time, and were now reduced to the condition of orphans. The property which our parents left was by no means inconsiderable. It was entrusted to faithful hands, till we should arrive at a suitable age. Meanwhile, our education was assigned to a maiden aunt who resided in the city, and whose tenderness made us in a short time cease to regret that we had lost a mother.”4

The curious callousness here portends the strangeness of the younger Wielands who have – as will later be quite readily clear – inherited their late parent’s eccentricity. Callousness aside, the intervening years after the grotesque tragedy are bright and merry ones. Our steadfast narrator, Clara, remarks that their dutiful aunt’s temper “-seldom deviated to either extreme of rigour or lenity.” Again we see Brown positing two poles and the moving there between. First there was the extremity of the elder Wieland’s and their faith creeds, the previous poles of “rigour” and “lenity,” the difference being that the aunt, unlike the either Mrs. Wieland or her fanatical husband were able to properly navigate between those extremes and there find some semblance of balance. Upon coming of age, Wieland, Jr. receives a sizable inheritance, falls in love with a young woman and moves into his father’s house with his sister, Clara. Clara describes her brother as “grave, considerate, and thoughtful,” and goes on to note that she “-will not say whether he was indebted to sublimer views for this disposition. Human life, in his opinion, was made up of changeable elements, and the principles of duty were not easily unfolded.” She further notes that in this happy period she “scarcely ever knew him to laugh” and also determines a certain similarity between Wieland, Jr. and their father (Wieland, Sr.), “There was an obvious resemblance between him and my father, in their conceptions of the importance of certain topics, and in the light in which the vicissitudes of human life were accustomed to be viewed.” A harbinger of things to come.

Wieland, Sr.’s temple, the grim site of his ghastly combustion, was transmuted from a site of worship into a place of leisure.

The temple was no longer assigned to its ancient use. From an Italian adventurer, who erroneously imagined that he could find employment for his skill, and sale for his sculptures in America, my brother had purchased a bust of Cicero. He professed to have copied this piece from an antique dug up with his own hands in the environs of Modena. Of the truth of his assertions we were not qualified to judge; but the marble was pure and polished, and we were contented to admire the performance, without waiting for the sanction of connoisseurs. We hired the same artist to hew a suitable pedestal from a neighbouring quarry. This was placed in the temple, and the bust rested upon it. Opposite to this was a harpsichord, sheltered by a temporary roof from the weather. This was the place of resort in the evenings of summer. Here we sung, and talked, and read, and occasionally banqueted. Every joyous and tender scene most dear to my memory, is connected with this edifice. Here the performances of our musical and poetical ancestor were rehearsed. Here my brother’s children received the rudiments of their education; here a thousand conversations, pregnant with delight and improvement, took place; and here the social affections were accustomed to expand, and the tear of delicious sympathy to be shed.”5


[—continued in part 7—]


1Caleb Crain, Something Wicked This Way Comes (New York Times, Dec 6, 1998)

2See, Violence, Jennifer Thorn, Piety, Enlightenment & Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, for more on the connection between Godwin & Brown.

3Lara E. Gibson, The Politics of Excess: Religion, Gender & Race in the Novels of Charles Brockden Brown, 2008.

4Brown, Wieland, p. 24, chapter III.

5Brown, Wieland, p. 28

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