In his lengthy introduction to my HBJ edition of Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, or The Transformation, the novel under discussion today, Fred Lewis Pattee writes the following:
The term “Father of American literature” belongs unquestionable to Charles Brockden Brown. To him belong also the first two decades of our republican literary history. He was an innovator in a revolutionary age, a literary genius…
Whoa, whoa, hold on there, hoss. I’m not prepared, nor would I find it especially interesting to, refute the claim that Brown is the Father of American Literature. This strikes me as mostly a chronological point anyway -- Wieland, not his first book, was written in 1798 -- and in those terms I don’t doubt that Pattee knows what he’s talking about, though I’ve gathered even on those grounds it’s debatable. But anyway, having read Wieland now, I do have my doubts about all that “literary genius” business (although as I write this I can’t help but think of Owen Wilson as Eli Cash in The Royal Tenenbaums wondering about a literary critic going out of his way to claim that Cash was “especially not a genius”). It’s not the only novel Brown wrote, and it is the only Brown novel thus far that I’ve read, so my experience of his work is obviously incomplete. Wieland is Brown’s best known and most widely read novel, however, by a significant margin, so it seems to me a decent enough place to start forming an opinion of the man’s work, and it’s, you know…it’s not bad. But it’s sort of dopey. In that it’s sort of dumb. Speaking of my HBJ edition, by the way, it was not necessary, I don’t think, for the author of the back cover copy to casually reveal almost all of the relevant and interesting plot points, but it may be necessary for me to do the same. To discuss Wieland and my problems with it, I sort of have to tell you what happens in it, because what happens in it accounts for the majority of those problems. So you should know going into this that the plot will be pretty much completely laid out, or all the stuff that matters.
Wieland, or The Transformation is a Gothic novel that builds to a moment of non-supernatural horror that strikes me as surprisingly modern – so modern, in fact, that our narrator, Clara Wieland, wonders if such a thing has ever happened before. This lies at the heart of what to me comprises the novel’s most interesting elements, but to get there, first, we need to learn about Clara and her brother Theodore, as well as their father, a somber man of benign religious mania who builds a temple on his family’s land, where he later goes to die. In a most unusual way. He goes to the temple in his robes, and later a shot, or what sounds like a shot, is heard by his family. When his own brother, Clara and Theodore’s uncle, nears the temple, Brown writes:
Within the columns he beheld what he could no better describe, than by saying that it resembled a cloud impregnated with light. It had the brightness of flame, but was without its upward motion…
Inside the temple:
…My father, when he left the house, besides a loose upper vest and slippers, wore a shirt and drawers. Now he was naked, his skin throughout the greater part of his body was scorched and bruised…His clothes had been removed, and it was not immediately perceived that they were reduced to ashes…
It’ll be awhile before we get to all that, though. For reasons to do, no doubt, with being culturally removed from Wieland’s original publication by 214 years, Brown’s flights of, I guess, meticulously documented decision-making can strike a modern reader, such as myself as unusual and a bit of a grind. What I’m saying here if it wasn’t clear is that a good portion of the novel is given over to Clara thinking about doing something, then running through all the pros and cons of doing that thing, and then either doing it or not doing it, followed usually, if the thing is done, by a quite thorough description of the thing being done. My favorite example of this involves Clara needing some light to read by, and preparing to retrieve a lamp:
To do this it was requisite to procure a light. The [maid] had long since retired to her chamber: it was therefore proper to wait upon myself. A lamp, and the means of lighting it, were only to be found in the kitchen. Thither I resolved forthwith to repair; but the light was of use merely to enable me to read the book. I knew the shelf and the spot where it stood. Whether I took down the book, or prepared the lamp in the first place, appeared to be a matter of no moment. The latter was preferred, and leaving my seat, I approached the closet in which, as I mentioned formerly, my books and papers were deposited.
In fairness, there is some practical reason for this – come on, let’s be honest – absurd paragraph, having to do with things like suspense and what have you, but I’m not sure anything can quite justify that. Something like "The lamp was in the kitchen, but as I prepared to fetch it..." perhaps might have been a cleaner way of going about this.
Anyway. The cast of characters is rounded out by Catharine, Theodore's wife and Clara's best friend; Pleyel, a friend who benevolently spars with Theodore on matters of faith, and with whom Clara falls in love; a scattering of children born to Theodore and Clara, as well as one, Louisa, whose tragic family history leads the couple to adopt her; and Carwin, the hinge of the whole thing, a strange-looking near-drifter who was one of Pleyel's old friends when they both lived in Spain, and who has now floated back, for reasons mysterious to Pleyel, to America. Around the time Carwin shows up, the core of the Wieland family -- in which, for the sake of economy, we will include Pleyel -- begin to hear a strange voice when one or more of them venture, for whatever reason, towards the old Wieland temple. The voice actually sounds exactly like Catharine, except that when the voice is heard, Catharine's whereabouts can always be accounted for. The voice often speaks warnings, and in one instance reveals that Pleyel's German fiance' has died, something that apparently turns out to be true. Other voices, less Catharine like, begin emanating from Clara's closet, offering strange threats, or warnings, with the upshot being, finally, that all evidence points, as far as Clara is concerned, to Carwin as some devious, evil, yet not, in her estimation, supernatural, or probably not, villain. At one point Carwin appears to confirm these fears -- he's found in her closet one night sand says to her, basically "I was about to do some bad stuff to you, but you're being protected by a magic force. Catch you later," and leaves.
Before Clara can spread the word of this to Theodore and Pleyel, something she's not altogether comfortable doing anyway, Pleyel, to whom Clara was just about to declare her love, comes down on her pretty hard, claiming that she's been having a torrid affair with Carwin, a man, Pleyel would now like her to know, who is basically the devil. Not literally, but morally. And now Pleyel wants nothing to do with her. Horrified, and shamed, as well as, I was pleased to see, pretty furious about having her name smeared by this Pleyel douche who should know better, Clara sets about trying to clear her name. Theodore is pretty easily won over to her side, but before much more ground can be made Clara discovers Catharine's body -- she's been murdered. As have, it is slowly revealed by family friends and doctors to a shocked Clara, all of Clara and Theodore's children, including Louise. The murderer was Theodore.
There's more, and that's the interesting part, and the silly part. Essentially the deal is, Carwin is a ventriloquist, or "biloquist," and his ability to throw his voice, and mimic the voices of others, is so powerful that it somehow leads Wieland to murder, believing that he was being ordered to do so by God. Carwin started this whole business because he'd just returned to America, and was hiding near the Wieland temple, and so when Wieland or Pleyel or the both of them would come near, he would mimic Catharine's voice (which he'd overheard during his time spent hiding nearby) to throw them off. So that's how it got started, and okay, fine. But it's very unclear to me why he would have said the things that led Wieland to murder. Which, through Wieland's courtoom statement, we know (or do we? I guess at best we're forced to take Wieland's word for this) to be, in part:
"I opened my eyes and found all about me luminous and glowing. It was the element that flowed around. Nothing but a fiery stream as at first visible; but, anon, a shrill voice from behind called upon me to attend.
"As it spoke, the accents thrilled to my heart. 'Thy prayers are heard. In proof of thy faith, render me thy wife. This is the victim I chuse. Call her hither, and here let her fall.'"
It goes of from there, with Wieland having every reason to believe that God, or some Godly force, is demanding an Abraham-like sacrifice, although in this case, unlike the Old Testament story, God doesn't pull a 180. In fact, he steps on the gas, and keeps doing so until Wieland's whole family is dead. The Carwin we come to know, or which he eventually convinces Clara to believe is the real one, wouldn't do this, nor would he want to. Nor, possibly, could he. Unlike his warnings and portents to Wieland and Pleyel early on, these calls to murder came with a visual component. Of this whole wild and bloody situation, a guilt-ridden Carwin says:
"Catharine was dead by violence. Surely my malignant stars had not made me the cause of her death; yet had I not rashly set in motion a machine, over whose progress I had no controul, and which experience had shewn me was infinite in power? Every day might add to the catalogue of horrors of which this was the source, and a seasonable disclosure of the truth might prevent numberless ills."
Or maybe not. In his introduction, Fred Lewis Pattee pretty reasonably, or almost reasonably, argues that Wieland's homicidal religious mania was entirely in his mind, and he was able to convince himself that what he was being told to do came from a legitimate heavenly source because of the mysterious voices he and Pleyel had already heard, but which neither knew were actually Carwin doing his nightclub act. The problem here is that, if true, the death of Clara and Theodore's father is now left as the one unexplained and possibly supernatural episode in the whole novel. Except that the idea here is, I've gathered, that the father's death is an occurrence of spontaneous human combustion. So it all makes sense! Their dad partially exploded and Theodore became such a somber religious thinker as a result that later when someone tricked him with the thing that would one day make Willy Tyler and Lester such hot shit it was a pretty short trip to him believing an angel from heaven was telling him to strangle his family.
Brown's destination here is that all of this could have been avoided if the various characters were mentally and morally stronger so that they couldn't have been deceived -- "If Wieland had framed juster notions of moral duty, and of the divine attributes; or if I had been gifted with ordinary equanimity or foresight," Clara writes at the end. But I feel like this could have been more concretely avoided if their dad had never blown up. It's hard to drive home your moral or philosophical points when around them you've constructed a story of such monumental absurdity. Questions that begin with "If only..." become meaningless in the face of this kind of madness.
In fairness, Wieland is far from uninteresting. Some of this interest is simply historical, such as the idea that a man murdering his entire family was apparently so outlandish at the time Brown wrote the novel that the very notion of it could be taken, for a while, as evidence that something otherworldly and infernal was at play. Ordinary human madness doesn't take this form, Clara argues at one point, only to be told, well, yes it does (and supposedly Brown was partly inspired by a real murder). Also fascinating is the section describing Clara's desire to visit her brother in prison, but being warned not to because if real life were to intrude into Wieland's life, the psychosis everyone believes led him to commit these horrible acts would break down and the horror of his crimes would be revealed to him, the argument being, does Clara really want her brother to suffer that fate? If Wieland believes he's done right by murdering his family, and given that he's going to be punished in a legal sense, would piling on unbearable guilt, the freedom from which is the only mercy Wieland has been granted, be just, or desired in any way? To my knowledge, I've never heard this argument made in a film or novel, or in a true story, that involves horrible murders committed in the midst of a similarly morally-twisted psychosis, and it's very intriguing and provocative. There is, in fact, a good deal in Wieland that would make a much better novel than the one Brown wrote.