Document Type


Date of Award



Charles Brockden Brown, Criticism and interpretation, American literature, 18th century

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English, General Literature, and Rhetoric

First Advisor

William B. Stein

Second Advisor

Mario A. Di Cesare

Third Advisor

Bernard Rosenthal




This study grows out of the assumption that Brown's fiction would reward examination on its merits alone; therefore, the techniques out of which Brown's complex view of man evolves receive attention over and above thematic concerns. The organization is not chronological so there is no effort at simply treating Brown's novels individually. Each chapter instead considers several of Brown's novels from the point of view of a single organizing and recurring technique of execution. Always the effort is made to remain true to the attempt at understanding what Brown is doing with the fictional art that he practiced throughout his life.

Little use has been made of the criticism on Brown. Whether one of Brown's latest critics, Warner Berthoff in his Introduction to Arthur Mervyn who contrasts ""the rich promise of his conceptions and the haphazardness of their execution,"" (vii) or his first biographer, Dulap, who reported that his subject wrote in a furious and artless haste without revision or design, critics have tended to dismiss Brown's artistry and turn to other and for them more interesting matters of his life and cultural background. At best, his critics have admitted to the power of his work without being willing to detail the sources of that power.


The premise in this study is that if Brown's work is complex, and if his view of man is ambiguous and complicated because qualified by all of the contingencies of experience, then that fact is reflected in his craftsmanship. Basically, the focus here is on the play of language and narrative voice as they issue through the devices of Brown's fiction to affect his readers with the depth of his view of human experience. While every study of Brown emphasizes his dedication to his writing, no matter how casually they dismiss the results–a pursuit of writing skill reflected in the naive dreams of poetic utopias to be found in his youth, his nightly practice in his journals, his outburst of novel writing, and his editing and writing of three different magazines at different times during his adult life–proof of that dedication must finally appear in his art.


One critic, William Manly, in an article entitled “The Importance of Point of View in Wieland,” asserts that the intensity of Brown's first novel “reflects his ability to convey through a first person narrator the shifting instability of a mind swayed between objective logic and subjective terror” (311-312). This recognition of the central significance of technique–here narrative point of view–is the starting point for several recent studies that go on to sketch what Berthoff calls in an article ""a fiction of ideas."" The weak point, however, too often is the fascination with idea and theme over technique. The analysis that follows attempts to correct the usual denigration of technique in Brown's fiction by showing that idea, theme, and character have no consistent meaning when separated from technique. As a consequence this approach concentrates on aspects of his craftsmanship hitherto glossed or ignored by modern critics. What this embraces is directly reflected in the chapter and section titles of the study, all of which in one way or another describe Brown's methods of refracting the experiences of his first-person narrators. In effect, I attempt to concern myself solely with the artistry that gives Brown's fiction its ultimate meaning.