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Representing Early America in "Wieland"

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In the gothic novel Wieland [1], Charles Brockden Brown confronts the anxieties of the early United States Republic regarding the sense of the threat posed by “wandering anarchists, dangerous foreigners and murderous savages.” As a work of the transnational imaginary, Wieland centers on the impact of the foreign ‘other’ on a family which can be seen to represent the wider context of colonial America. The novel was written in 1798, at which time the American Republic was still young and its national identity was in a fragile and incomplete state of progress. The lack of unity bought by Carwin and the outsiders he stands for presented a sense of jeopardy in the nation’s search for this identity.

Francis Carwin epitomizes the type of character at the center of these anxieties, as he appears to be an embodiment of all the aspects of an outsider which caused them to be seen as a threat to the unity and stability of the American Republic. He was born British, assimilated himself into Spanish culture, and at the time of the novel’s events attempts to insert himself into a colonial Philadelphian family. He appears as an ‘alien’ among the familiar harmony of the family that embodies the early American Republican focus on unity and insularity. It is tempting to argue that Brockden Brown confronts the transnational sense of anxiety over the dangers of the other in such a way as to justify it, and show it to be felt with a sufficient degree of legitimacy. Certainly, Carwin can be seen as the root cause of the family’s downfall, with his deceitful uses of biloquism planting the seeds of insanity in Theodore Wieland’s mind. Francesca Orestano certainly appears to support the notion that Carwin is the source of the fractures in the family’s dynamic as she argues that “The chimera, at once agent and cypher of the fatal change in Wieland’s orderly microcosm, is a transatlantic refugee named Carwin, whose ventriloquism allows him to shift from one identity into another” [2]. With this singular statement, Orestano touches on several crucial points with regards to the anxieties of the Early American Republic as portrayed within Brockden Brown’s work of the transnational imaginary. The metaphorical comparison of Carwin to a “chimera,” a fire breathing monster from Greek mythology, presents him as kind of symbol of destruction as he uses his vocal talents to set everything around him ‘ablaze’ with confusion and madness.

However, on a deeper level, the chimera becomes an even more appropriate metaphor for Carwin, as it is by nature composed of the parts of several different animals all joined together to form one body. In light of this, Orestano can be seen to be referencing Carwin’s mixture of cultures as a man who is born British, before abandoning this culture to take on a Spanish identity, and then trying to insert himself into the American culture. She appears to imply that such a hybrid of national identities is, at least within the context of Brockden Brown’s novel, monstrous. It is his ability to shift between identities which symbolizes the dangers of cultural diversity for a newly formed nation. From this view, it is perhaps only through unity that a new nation can survive and prosper, as the arrival of one who brings diversity throws the status quo into disarray. Orestano also argues in favor of Carwin being the navigator of the developments which take the family from a position of stability to a position of chaos. This stands in support of the notion that the sense of paranoia shaping the late eighteenth century transnational imagination is more founded than unfounded, as Carwin’s appearance and its effects on the Wieland’s and the Pleyel’s can be seen to confirm it. The description of Wieland’s family unit as a “microcosm” is interesting, as the ordered and insular existence formed between the two American couples can indeed be seen to represent the wider context of the thirteen colonies and their struggle for a sense of unity and nationality in the face of oppressive British colonialism and the external threats of conflict in the wake of the French and Indian wars. Clara and Wieland themselves make allusions to this sense of their family as a microcosm of the United States Republic as they discuss whether “the picture of a single family [could offer] a model from which to sketch the condition of a nation” (29).

However, while Carwin may initially appear to be presented as a purely antagonistic figure, who both feeds and confirms the repulsions felt towards him by the Wielands and the Pleyels, this is not necessarily the case. The paranoia which shapes Brockden Brown’s work of transnational imagination is indeed shown to be free-floating as opposed to being grounded in anything specific or legitimate. This is particularly evident as Clara’s anxieties over his sudden appearance begin before he has been tied to any of the misfortune which befalls her family unit. After their brief initial meeting, she obsesses over him to the point of drawing a portrait of his face and recounting the way in which he causes her to become “absorbed in thoughts ominous and dreary” (49). Indeed, Carwin evokes anguished thoughts in Clara about the inevitability of death and ambiguous feelings of dread, yet she offers up little in the way of solid reasoning behind these feelings. Clara appears to obsess over Carwin to such a degree that her once rational demeanor crumbles away, leading us to question her reliability as a narrator, and subsequently question whether or not Carwin’s part in the tragedy is overplayed or even fabricated entirely. Clara herself questions whether Carwin is in actual fact a “phantom of [her] own creation” (69), which becomes more likely given the fact that she is inherently predisposed to the same madness that her brother ultimately succumbs to. She reaffirms her uncertainty over her accusations of Carwin as she admits that “whether Wieland was a maniac, a faithful servant of his God, the victim of hellish illusions, or the dupe of human imposture, was by no means certain” (142). Indeed, even with her constant convictions that Carwin is a bringer of destruction and tragedy for her family, Clara admits that he may have only played a small part in her brother’s descent into madness, if any part at all. Emory Elliott highlights the idea of these anxieties over Carwin’s presence being without justification as he argues that “Given the centrality of the threat that Carwin represents in the novel and the complete lack of satisfying answers……Brown’s readers are correct to wonder whether the book is an exercise in social paranoia” [3]. Certainly, Clara’s narration appears to consistently define Carwin as an antagonist, introducing him as “the author” (144) of the horrific events leading to her family’s downfall. However, from an external point of view, the true antagonist appears to none other than her brother, as he is the perpetrator of the gruesome murders of his wife and children. Although Carwin confesses that he used his vocal talents to create the illusion of voices, he never explicitly states that he convinced Wieland to murder his own family. Therefore, much of Carwin’s villainy can be seen to be a work of Clara’s free-floating paranoia as she talks from the perspective of a woman who has been conditioned to reject the external outsider, and to remain within the boundaries of an insular American existence.

Furthering the idea that the downfall of Clara’s family is only falsely attributed to the work of Carwin, the novel is actually imbued with the notion that all of the destructive qualities needed to upend the lives of the Wielands and the Pleyels are already existent within their family units. From this perspective, Carwin is at worst a catalyst for their downfall, and at best a scapegoat for actions he was not truly to blame for. The inherent insanity which spans back three generations of the Wieland family is key to this notion, as it suggests that Wieland himself was a predisposed ticking time bomb of sorts, independent of Carwin’s interference. Susan Williams Brown supports this idea as she states that “[Wieland] is a pathetic character, a victim of inherited insanity with a fate predetermined by the history of the family” [4]. This “history of the family” which Williams Brown speaks of could also refer to the history of the United States Republic, which was built up quite literally over the blood of the natives. These seeds of corruption seem to be embodied within the character of Wieland, whose madness creates an unstable foundation for the little community he and his sister have built for themselves. Brockden Brown conveys the sense that no kind of stable settlement could spring from so much suffering, whether it be the systematic slaughter of the Native Americans or the festering insanity of the Wieland family. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock supports Williams Brown’s suggestion that it is Wieland, and not Carwin, who was the deserving subject of the family’s paranoia as he argues that “Carwin’s intervention may well have been a precipitating factor leading Wieland to act upon repressed desires, but the evidence seems to suggest that the voice of God heard by Wieland was neither God nor Carwin but rather the voice of the other within” [5]. The implication here is that Carwin does pose a threat to the family, but only in so far as his role as the one who reveals the issues which are predominantly internalized. Perhaps with regards to the anxieties of the early United States Republic it can be deduced that the source of the free-floating paranoia over ‘dangerous foreigners’ and ‘wandering anarchists’ is based around the idea that these external individuals possess the capability to expose the true instability of the fragile young nation. The anxieties may be merely an external projection of the issues within, in an attempt to paper over the cracks and make an unstable nation appear stable by scapegoating outsiders and blaming the non-present other. It is important to note that at the novel’s climax, the ultimate confrontation is one of violence between brother and sister. In other words, violence between insider and insider and oppose to insider and outsider. This can be seen to be symbolic of the unrest within the early United States Republic, as the tensions over external wars and British oppression eventually came to a head shortly after the setting of Wieland, and shortly before the time of its writing and publication. In addition to his underlying mental illness, the breakdown of Wieland’s stability and the subsequent downfall of his family can be attributed to his religious fanaticism, as he all too quickly accepts Carwin’s practical jokes of biloquism as being the voice of God. Howard I Kushner supports this notion as he insists that it is not the threat of a foreigner or a wanderer which leads Wieland to slaughter his wife and children, but rather a fatal combination of his religion and his underlying insanity as he states the way in which many have “connected Theodore Wieland’s madness and suicide to his Puritan-like obedience and to what he interpreted to be God’s will…Rejecting man’s reason and law as fallible, Wieland submitted only to the voice of God”[6].

In addition to confronting the paranoia of the early American Republic with regards to outsiders in such a way as to make it appear unfounded, Brockden Brown simultaneously delineates the dangers of this way of thinking. Robert S Levine highlights this notion as he suggests that “though Wieland could be read as a text concerned about the new nation’s vulnerability to aliens of unknown origins and motives, the Schuylkill community’s hysterical response to Carwin could also be taken to suggest that Brown is concerned about the way in which paranoia and hysteria were used to legitimate repressive anti-alien laws”[7]. Indeed, Wieland was published in 1798, a year which took place shortly after the American Revolution culminated in independence from Britain and a rise in concerns about cultural and religious differences threatening the unity of the nation. Consequently, 1798 was the same year that saw the passing of the Alien and Sedition acts which increased American residency requirements and allowed for easier deportation of ‘aliens’ who were deemed to pose a threat to the American people. Levine also notes that Brockden Brown himself, as a citizen of Philadelphia, shared in the sense of paranoia around him as he states that “as anxious and nativist as his novels might be, they are also knowing mediations on and critiques of the process of defining a nation against racial and ethnic orders” [8]. In other words, through the writing of Wieland, Brockden Brown manages to overlook his own socially programmed anxieties of the other in order to correctly recognise them as being irrational and oppressive. The repulsion which Clara feels towards Carwin seems to be felt before even meeting him, as soon as she spots him in the grounds of her home. Rather than abhorring him for any specific reason, her issue stems largely from his attempt at assimilating himself into a culture which was not his own as he took on many traits of a Spaniard, together with his ambiguous past and his general sense of foreignness. This is telling of the way in which the American people were encouraged to rally against the threat of outsiders in a bid to create a sense of national unity and identity. However, such staunch closed mindedness is exposed by Brockden Brown as being dangerously oppressive leading to the scapegoating of perceived “foreigners.” Juliet Shields highlight the way in which Brockden Brown uses Carwin as a means through which to convey this danger as she suggests that “Carwin becomes a scapegoat for the murders caused by Wieland’s own flawed reasoning and the isolated insularity of Mettigen” [9]. Indeed, her suggestion that the isolation of the family’s farm contributes to Wieland’s growing insanity is interesting, as it stands in opposition to the idea that it is the disturbance of their isolation by Carwin which triggers it. In a wider context, this implies that the discouragement of transnational migration was counterproductive to the nations stability, as its isolation and rejection of diversity was a weakening force as opposed to a strengthening one.

Wieland thus confronts the anxieties regarding the threat of outsiders present in the early American Republic by juxtaposing the classic cultural ‘other’ of Carwin against the unified American Republican microcosm of the Wieland-Pleyel family unit. The first person epistolary narrative allows Clara’s deep sense of anxiety and fascination with Carwin to be fully emphasized, but also allows the reader room to question her credibility and to draw on the gap between the dangerous antagonist she perceives him to be and the actual lack of evidence to support this, particularly when set against the murderous psychosis of her brother Wieland. In this sense, Brockden Brown portrays these anxieties as not only without solid justification, but also as holding the potential to become dangerous and oppressive. Clara’s constant attempts to use Carwin as a scapegoat for her family’s misfortune are suggestive of the way in which such free-floating paranoia feeds segregation and oppression.


Brockden Brown, Charles. Wieland, Or, The Transformation, edited by Philip Barnard and Stephen Shapiro. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2009.

Elliott, Emory. Introduction to Wieland; Or the Transformation and Memoirs of Carwin, the Biloquist, by Charles Brockden Brown, vii – xvii. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Kushner, Howard I. American Suicide: A Psychocultural Exploration. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

Levine, Robert S. “Race and Ethnicity.” In A Companion to American Fiction 1780 – 1865, edited by Shirley Samuels, 52 – 63. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2008.

Levine, Robert S. “Race and Nation in Brown’s Louisiana Writings of 1803.” In Revising Charles Brockden Brown: Culture, Politics and Sexuality in the Early Republic, edited by Philip Barnard, Mark L. Kamrath and Stephen Shapiro, 332 – 353. Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2004.

Orestano, Francesca. “The Case for John Neal: Gothic Naturalized.” In Gothick Origins and Innovations, edited by Allan Lloyd Smith and Victor Sage, 95 – 114. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994.

Shields, Juliet. Nation and Migration: The Making of British Atlantic Literature 1765 – 1835. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Kindle edition.

Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew. Charles Brockden Brown. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011.

Williams Brown, Susan. Villainy in Brockden Brown’s Wieland and Arthur Mervyn: Structural Unity Throughout the Development of Characters and Universal Themes. Dallas: Texas Woman’s University, 1982.

[1] Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland, Or, The Transformation, ed. Philip Barnard and Stephen Shapiro (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2009). Subsequent references in parenthesis are to this edition. [2] Francesca Orestano, “The Case for John Neal: Gothic Naturalized”, in Gothick Origins and Innovations, ed. Allan Lloyd Smith and Victor Sage (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994), 98. [3] Emory Elliott, introduction to Wieland; Or the Transformation and Memoirs of Carwin, the Biloquist, by Charles Brockden Brown (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), xxix [4] Susan Williams Brown, Villainy in Brockden Brown’s Wieland and Arthur Mervyn: Structural Unity Throughout the Development of Characters and Universal Themes (Dallas: Texas Woman’s University, 1982), 77. [5] Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, Charles Brockden Brown (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011), 103. [6] Howard I. Kushner, American Suicide: A Psychocultural Exploration (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991), 31. [7] Robert S. Levine, “Race and Nation in Brown’s Louisiana Writings of 1803”, in Revising Charles Brockden Brown: Culture, Politics and Sexuality in the Early Republic, ed. Philip Barnard, Mark L. Kamrath and Stephen Shapiro (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2004), 342. [8] Robert S. Levine, “Race and Ethnicity”, in A Companion to American Fiction 1780 – 1865, ed. Shirley Samuels (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2008), 55. [9] Juliet Shields, Nation and Migration: The Making of British Atlantic Literature, 1765 – 1835 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), Kindle edition.

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