Saturday, April 20, 2024

The Nature and Origin of American Fiction and Letters.

American fiction was born in a state of protest.  It was also Gothic at its core.  These are the two interrelated points I want to argue for in the essay that follows.  In many ways what I'm about to say next has little excuse for existing except for another two reasons.  The conclusions arrived at here were nothing else except the result of a long gestation period.  Something that happened at such a gradual pace that it was like assembling an entire picture puzzle without even knowing what you were up to.  Once the picture was complete, however, there was just no denying either the direction it pointed at, or the conclusions it lead you to.  The second part of the intellectual journey to the writing of these words is that it really was a simple case of reading a lot, and then noticing how a lot of important themes kept recurring in the works of different authors across a span of decades, and almost centuries.  The timespan I aim to look at in the following essay encompasses a reasonable short enough space.  It starts at the tail-end of the Eighteenth Century (when the Nation was founded), and culminates at the exact mid-point of the Nineteenth (when the Civil War took place).  It's focus won't be on any one literary name.  Rather I intend to take a series of short thematic looks into the writings of what I consider to be the four authors who did the most to help set what I have to term the defining keynotes of American fiction in stone.  These are the Names who helped mold the contours of what creative writing in the United States still remains even to this day and era.

That sounds like one hell of a tall order, I know.  Who the hell am I, anyway?  And what makes me think it's possible to say anything about early American fiction and its creators that would make any of it valid for study today?  In answer to the first question, I'm just some nothing bookworm who thinks (or hopes) he's discovered a pattern of literary themes and ideas that were shared out over more than one ink-stained wretch as the former British Colonies were busy transfiguring themselves into something most folk at least hoped was something approaching a United American state.  The answer to the second challenge is a bit more interesting.  In first noticing, and then deciding to make a careful study of four writers who seemed crucial to the construction of anything approaching a viable American literary identity, it soon became possible to realize that what I'd stumbled upon might just amount to something of a genuine, unremarked artistic legacy from the past.  One whose continuity extends from the Founding Era right up to this very moment.  The potentially good news is this may turn out to be a case where examining a legacy from the past doesn't amount to something like a outmoded institution that has worn out its welcome, and is better left abandoned.  On the contrary, what marks each of the authors under discussion here today is there seemingly admirable qualities.  Virtues (for lack of any better word) that prove more than compatible with the values of inclusion and equality of today.

And so, I repeat what I said right at the start.  The origins and nature of American fiction are defined by two things.  It's acute sense of moral outrage, and protest, coupled with a series of artistic tropes and practices that when placed together, give us the beginnings of a workable form of American Gothic letters.  As I've also said, there are precisely four writers who I believe best exemplify the neglected legacy.  In terms of brand name recognition, it's sort of like a half-and-half deal.  Two of them have something approaching a legitimate shelf-life, while the other two don't even register as a blip on the radar.  In the case of the latter two, that amounts to not just a real shame, it might also count as a form of criminal negligence.  With this in mind the shared themes and ideas we'll be looking at here today can all be found within the work of the following Names.  The are: Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Brockden Brown, and Phillis Wheatley.  I've decided against taking their efforts in any precise chronological order.  My reasons for doing this is because it seemed better to tackle each author vignette in terms of thematic importance, rather than having the importance of the ideas they helped express in their works get lost in the natural shuffle of a strict chronology of years

As such, I've decided to shape the chain of letters in terms of greatest importance, starting from the lowest level to the highest.  With all this in mind, I reckon it's time to get acquainted with the men (and one very important woman) who each helped to set the stamp on what American fiction can be at its best.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

The Death of Cicero by Charles Brockden Brown.

Here at the Scriblerus Club, it's part of what might be termed the "company policy" to hunt around for obscure and forgotten names or titles, in order see if it's possible give them a second chance in the spotlight.  My reasons for doing this every now and then are pretty simple.  I don't see why the value of literary art has to be this kind of time bound phenomena.  If a story is good, there's no reason why its shelf life should have to come with a built-in sell-by date warranty, where it's no longer of use.  If that were the case, if all writing was doomed to remain forever beyond the reach of audience tastes, then someone's going to have to explain to me why folks like Beowulf and Grendel, or Alice, the White Rabbit, and the Cheshire Cat are still household names.  Also, remember, two of them came from a time long before the advent of modern Britain.  We still don't even know who wrote the damn thing, and yet generations of readers have never let that stand in the way of enjoying a good narrative.  There's a kind of unspoken sentiment, or agreement in operation with cases like this.  The unsaid idea seems to be that good stories, the kind that authors like Peter S. Beagle would describe as having "True Magic" in them, are able to last for a whole myriad of good reasons.  There's a quality to the plot or narrative that is able to overcome even the longest and strongest barrier of time and place, and it's an idea that I'm more than willing to give a heartfelt applause.

Maybe I'm just one of those helpless Romantics.  However, the really weird fact is I just can't shake the idea that all potential narratives can amount to something of importance.  From what I can tell, that also seems to have been the idea held by the forgotten name under discussion for today.  In the strictest sense, Charles Brockden Brown doesn't seem to count as a household name on the tip of anyone's tongue.  He appears to be a living example of yet another, related maxim.  Just as all stories can be of potential value, so time and tide can be even a good author's greatest enemy.  A tale is mute without an audience to receive it, and sometimes they just don't stick around long enough for the artist to leave as big of a mark as they perhaps deserve.  That seems to have been the case with Charlie Brown.  He was something of a groundbreaker in his day, and yet the passage of time has all but erased his name, works, and accomplishments from the annals of popular memory.  If ol' Chuck has any viable shelf space left out there, then it's within the confines of the very niche category of die hard nerds and historians of the Gothic genre.  It's a legacy that I'm starting to think might deserve a rescue from the scrap heap.

So, with this in mind, I thought I'd take things slow, and one at a time.  Part of the reason for this is because while it's true that Brown's name and work have no choice except to remain unfamiliar to the vast majority of contemporary readers, the good news is that in his case, that's not the same as saying there's not a lot to talk about, or much in the way of a historical breadcrumb trail to go on.  On the contrary, despite the relative obscurity of his popular reputation, it turns out Brown was kind enough to be one of those writers who was able to leave enough historical details behind to begin to fashion a whole biography out of.  If the good news is that its possible to arrive at a more or less complete picture of the author, it's still not the same thing as saying that you can just take any of his writings, place it in the spotlight, and expect anyone to just "get it" automatically.  Whether or not that's how people expect taking any potential work of art is supposed to go, experience has taught me time and again that sometimes you just can't rush either an artist or his artwork on an audience that hasn't been well trained before showtime.  Often, the case is you have to prepare the reader for the type of story they're about to receive.  It means you've got to awaken their imaginative sympathies for older forms of storytelling.

I'm not saying this is an impossible task, by any means.  The fact that most of us are still familiar with the traditional Bardic Meter of the Beowulf Poet, or the Elizabethan Blank Verse of Shakespeare says that we still have some familiarity with how older stories used to be told.  Nor is it the case that Brockden Brown presents the reader with any great challenges in terms of reading comprehension.  It's just that sometimes obscure authors need to have the ground prepared for them ahead of time.  It's less a matter of being too obscure to understand, and more a case of everything old is new again.  I wasn't lying when I called Brown a trendsetter, for instance, and while that is an important, defining part of his legacy, the obscure quality of his name and efforts (all inevitable football related jokes aside) means that I think it's best to work our way up the ladder of his artistic achievements.  So we'll start out slow, just taking our time, and looking at something he's written in an effort to see what makes any of it valuable.  Later on, there may be plenty of time to go into the nature of Brown's accomplishments as a premiere American Gothic artist.  For the moment, we'll settle into the nature of his work with a simple, out-of-the-way short story.  It's an interesting piece is historical fiction called "The Death of Cicero".