In 1798, a decade after the Founding Fathers created a nation based on the principles of liberty and equality, Charles Brockden Brown, then an unknown Philadelphia writer, invented the American Gothic novel. His first book, “Wieland,” is the story of a religious fanatic haunted by demonic voices instructing him to murder his wife and children. In subsequent works, a young country bumpkin confronts the depravities of city existence, an impecunious daughter becomes the erotic obsession of an insane egomaniacal rationalist and a sleepwalker awakes to—and participates in—the extremes of frontier savagery.
How could a glorious age of American history also give rise to the darkest of literary traditions, one that would inspire Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King and many other best-selling American writers?
In “Charles Brockden Brown’s Revolution and the Birth of American Gothic,” Peter Kafer carefully unravels the mystery of what compelled this pious Philadelphia Quaker to become fascinated with a peculiar form of dark European imagery and transform it into something wholly American. Brockden Brown wrote of the horrors that lurked below the triumphant veneer of the young American republic, and in doing so, he became the literary conscience of his generation.
Written with a witty and acutely critical eye, “Charles Brockden Brown’s Revolution and the Birth of American Gothic” illuminates the social and political influences on the nation’s first professional novelist and reveals the surprising origins of one of American literature’s most popular and enduring genres.
Peter Kafer, a writer who lives in West Chester, Pennsylvania, earned his Ph.D. degree in history from The Johns Hopkins University.
—University of Pennsylvania Press
Originally published on June 10, 2004