Outlines of English and American Literature Beginning of American Fiction byLong, William J.
Those who imagine that American fiction
began with Irving or Cooper or Poe, as is sometimes alleged, will be
interested to learn of Susanna Rowson (daughter of an English father and an
American mother), whose later stories, at least, belong to our literature.
In 1790 she published Charlotte Temple, a romance that was immensely
popular in its own day and that has proved far more enduring than any
modern "best seller." During the next century the book ran through more
than one hundred editions, the last appearing in 1905; and from first to
last it has had probably more readers than any novel of Scott or Cooper or
Dickens. The reception of this work indicates the widespread interest in
fiction here in the late eighteenth century. Moreover, as there were then
two types of fiction in England, the sentimentalism of Richardson and the
realism of Fielding, so in America the gushing romances of Mrs. Rowson were
opposed by the Female Quixotism and other alleged realistic stories
of Tabitha Tenney. Both schools of fiction had here their authors and their
multitudinous readers while Irving and Cooper were learning their alphabet
and Poe was yet unborn.
Into the crude but hopeful beginnings of American fiction we shall not
enter, for the simple reason that our earliest romances are hardly worth
the time or patience of any but historical students. At the close of the
Revolutionary period, however, appeared a writer whom we may call with some
justice the first American novelist. This was Charles Brockden Brown
(1771-1810), who is worthy to be remembered on three counts: he was the
first in this country to follow literature as a profession; he chose
American rather than foreign heroes, and pictured them against an American
background; and finally, his use of horrible or grotesque incidents was
copied by Poe, his Indian adventures suggested a fruitful theme to Cooper,
and his minute analysis of motives and emotions was carried out in a more
artistic way by Hawthorne. Hence we may find in Brown's neglected works
something of the material and the method of our three greatest writers of
The Motive of Horror
The six romances of Brown are all dominated by the motive of horror, and
are modeled on the so-called Gothic novel with its sentimental heroine, its
diabolical villain, its ghastly mystery, its passages of prolonged agony.
If we ask why an American writer should choose this bizarre type, the
answer is that agonizing stories were precisely what readers then wanted,
and Brown depended upon his stories for his daily bread. At the present
time a different kind of fiction is momentarily popular; yet if we begin
one of Brown's bloodcurdling romances, the chances are that we shall finish
it, since it appeals to that strange interest in morbid themes which leads
so many to read Poe or some other purveyor of horrors and mysteries.
Wieland (1798) is commonly regarded as the best of Brown's works,
but is too grotesque and horrible to be recommended. Edgar Huntley
(1801), with its Indian adventures depicted against a background of wild
nature, is a little more wholesome, and may serve very well as a type of
the romances that interested readers a century or more ago.