THE ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN LITERARY TRADITION (PART 7)

Shortly after the transformation of the Wieland Sr.’s temple, we are introduced to the theme of voice and rhetoric, a theme which will form the backbone of many of Brown’s subsequent social and philosophical critiques as well as a sizable portion of the novel’s plot. This theme takes the form of Wieland, Jr.’s intensive interest in Cicero1, the famed Roman orator. Wieland, Jr. is so taken with Cicero and ancient Roman oratory in general, that not only does he attempt to find ways to replicate Roman Latin annunciation, but also attempted to emulate their gestures and movements. Wieland Jr.’s interest in Romanism is only intensified when the young, bright and cheerful, Henry Pleyel enters the picture. Pleyel is the brother of Clara’s friend and he and Wieland Jr. become fast friends. One of the cornerstones of this friendship is a shared interest in Roman history, principally, a mutual appreciation for the works of Cicero.

This fellowship between Pleyel, Clara and Wieland, Jr. was of such a grade that even the outbreak of war failed to shatter the splendor of their idyll, rather, it only intensifies it.

Six years of uninterrupted happiness had rolled away, since my brother’s marriage. The sound of war had been heard, but it was at such a distance as to enhance our enjoyment by affording objects of comparison. The Indians were repulsed on the one side, and Canada was conquered on the other. Revolutions and battles, however calamitous to those who occupied the scene, contributed in some sort to our happiness, by agitating our minds with curiosity, and furnishing causes of patriotic exultation.”2

In one of these war time idylls at the family temple, Pleyel takes Wieland, Jr. to task over the merits of Cicero’s speech given in defense of a Roman named Aulus Cluentius Habitus3. It is during their disputation that we see the intersection of Brown’s political inclinations with the ever present theme of voice or oration.

One afternoon in May, the blandness of the air, and brightness of the verdure, induced us to assemble, earlier than usual, in the temple. We females were busy at the needle, while my brother and Pleyel were bandying quotations and syllogisms. The point discussed was the merit of the oration for Cluentius, as descriptive, first, of the genius of the speaker; and, secondly, of the manners of the times. Pleyel laboured to extenuate both these species of merit, and tasked his ingenuity, to shew that the orator had embraced a bad cause; or, at least, a doubtful one. He urged, that to rely on the exaggerations of an advocate, or to make the picture of a single family a model from which to sketch the condition of a nation, was absurd.”4

A storm shortly blows in and Wieland and Pleyel shortly thereafter resume their argument, the ladies of the house, sprightly enjoining. At length Wieland resorts to a letter to prove the merit of his argument (the precise nature of this argument is not disclosed in the text, it is really just a plot device) but cannot find it and recalls he had left the document in his father’s temple which had been vacated due bad weather. He embarks to retrieve the letter and returns without it, his countenance utterly changed. Things here take a turn towards the bizarre when Wieland asks with perplexity whether or not his wife had moved from her seat (she had not), both his wife and Clara and Pleyel respond that she had stayed with them all the while. Wieland then informs them that he must either question their assurance or his own senses as he claims to have heard his wife at the bottom of the hill before the temple, saying, “Stop, go no further. There is danger in your path.” Pleyel notes that this could not be, but Wieland is not to be dissuaded and further elaborates that he saw… something, neath the light of the moon. Wieland goes on to state that he was so moved by this mysterious occurrence of events that he “-could do nothing but obey.”

Henry Pleyel is of the opinion that, perhaps his friend had heard a voice but that the voice most certainly could not have belonged to Catherine (Wieland’s wife and Pleyel’s sister). Catherine herself agrees with Henry but Clara’s mind instantly turns to the grotesque events which lead to the death of her father; strangely, the thought that what had occurred to her father might now be happening to her brother produces no fear or despair but rather, a thrill of interest. The events of that night’s adventure leave a solemn impression upon the young Wieland who doesn’t know what to make of the events save that something had occurred and that something could not be explained away by Pleyel’s rationalizations.

Sometime later, Pleyel has occasion to travel to Europe where he discovers to his very great delight, that the already wealthy Wieland, Jr. had rightful claim to a substantial holding in Lusatia5 whose previous occupants had been killed in the Prussian War6. Pleyel is determined that his friend should lay claim to this inheritance but Wieland is hesitant, cautious about the corrosive effects that such wealth and power invariably bring. Pleyel also has a personal motivation; love. Having a residence in Leipzig, Saxony in Germany he had there fallen for a woman and was thus doubly motivated to convince his friend to take up the inheritance: as he would then be able to pursue his amour whilst being in close proximity to his Wieland, his wife and, presumably, Clara as well. Clara describes Pleyel’s endeavor thusly,

Pleyel was enamoured of his scheme on account of its intrinsic benefits, but, likewise, for other reasons. His abode at Leipsig made that country appear to him like home. He was connected with this place by many social ties. While there he had not escaped the amorous contagion. But the lady, though her heart was impressed in his favor, was compelled to bestow her hand upon another. Death had removed this impediment, and he was now invited by the lady herself to return. This he was of course determined to do, but was anxious to obtain the company of Wieland; he could not bear to think of an eternal separation from his present associates. Their interest, he thought, would be no less promoted by the change than his own. Hence he was importunate and indefatigable in his arguments and solicitations.”7

During one of Pleyel’s attempts at persuasion, he left with young Wieland on a walk, stating that they’d return to the womenfolk of the estate shortly. However, they return far later than expected, both wearing countenances of supreme confusion, when the women inquire as to what has transpired, Pleyel feigns indifference but shortly thereafter shoots his friend a cautionary gaze, compelling him to silence. Later, a uncharacteristically serious Pleyel greets Clara and inquires whether or not Catherine had left the chamber in which he had departed before his argument with Wieland. Clara replies that neither she nor Catherine had moved from their perch and that they had spent the whole of the men’s absence in reading and sprightly conversation. Pleyel suddenly and inexplicably exclaims that his love, the Baroness de Stolberg, is dead. Clara is momentarily shocked and wonders aloud how he could possibly know this given the fact that the Baroness resides in Germany and the Wielands reside in America and no messages between either party, expressing anything of the sort, had been sent. On the verge of tears, Pleyel explains the reason for his previous look of confusion, noting that on his walk with Clara’s brother, the two men had taken up a sea by a river. Pleyel plied his arguments with renewed forcefulness but Wieland would not yield and responded that it was pointless for even should he cave to peer-pressure, Pleyel would still have to convince his wife and Clara. Pleyel is somewhat perplexed and states that Wieland’s wife should certainly join them in Europe, inquiring, “But when she [Catherine] knows your pleasure, will she not conform to it?” Before Wieland can answer a voice that seems to come from both everywhere and nowhere responds, “No.” Henry notes that the voice was in every particular, his sister’s. Clara is convinced that the voice is real and is determined to fly with Henry to Europe to ascertain the fate of the Baroness, yet, before she or Henry can act the mysterious voice prevails upon them.

“You shall not go. The seal of death is on her lips. Her silence is the silence of the tomb.”

Several weeks pass and word finally arrives from Saxony; the Baroness is dead. The voice, whoever or whatever it is, spoke truly.

One of the very interesting things which Brown does after Clara becomes convinced the voice is real, is to have her waver between believing that the voice is malevolent and beneficent; our clear-minded narrator eventually concludes that the voice is most likely a guiding spirit. What is interesting about this narrative move is that it is rather against horror convention given that most horror fiction produces some particular kind of supra-agent, a kind of outer force (such as a ghost, visions or a mysterious human figure) and though one is generally kept ignorant by the author on all manner of this outer force‘s attributions, one always knows that it is malevolent (even if the motivations for its malevolence are never explained). A good example of this trend in horror is contained within the Hound of the Baskervilles8, wherein the nature of the titular and dreadful hound is left shrouded in mystery, it is not known whether or not the hound is natural or supernatural, but the hound certainly exists and it is most certainly malevolent. However, the “outer force” in Wieland is of a different composition; things here are not so cleanly delineated and it is in this kind of permeation of outer-darkness, and the general building-up of a peculiar and believable sense of uncertainty, that the novel draws much of its strength.


[—Continued in part 8—]


1Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) was a Roman orator, writer and politician who became a vocal enemy of Mark Antony during the power struggle which ensued after the death of Julius Caesar. He was eventually executed by Mark Antony, who severed his hands and feet and displayed them triumphantly in the Forum Magnum.

2Brown, Wieland, p. 31

3Aulus Cluentius Habitus was a wealthy citizen of Larinum, Samnium, who was accused of attempting to poison his step-father. Cicero defended him and he was found not guilty whereas his accuser, his step-father, Oppianicus, was found to be the guilty party. See, Cicero, In Verrum II.

4Brown, Wieland, p. 35

5Lusatia is a small, German and Polish-speaking, central European country inhabited primarily by Slavs.

6During the period from 1792-1871 Prussia experienced numerous wars. Given that Wieland was published in 1798, Brown is likely referencing The War of the First Coalition (1792-1797).

7Brown, Wieland, p. 45

8The Hound of the Baskervilles is a crime novel written by Sir Conan Doyle featuring his famous characters, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. It was first published in serialized form in The Strand from 1901-1902.

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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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