Through his Subtlety of Wit and Deadpan Humor, Charles Brockden Brown Makes Washington Irving Read Like an Early-American Andy Dick
Happy Fourth of July! For this fourth, I've decided to launch a holiday-associated "Love Your American Authors" series. (I know, I know! Too incredibly exciting!) At any rate, a few days ago, I finished Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland: or the Transformation: an American Tale, and let me tell you, it was one of the most exciting boring books I've ever read. Scholars list Brockden Brown's novels in the gothic genre, and, I must say, the man has quite a way with suspense. Following his approach to a narrative cliff-hanger, one must not simply dangle off of the metaphorical cliff, one's hands must be nailed to said cliff. In this manner, the suspense goes on...and on...and on... But I think that people may be overlooking the humor in Brockden Brown's stories.
So (you may be asking), what happens in Weiland? Well, the story centers around the Weiland family who live by themselves in the woods. Wieland, his wife Catherine, their children, and his sister, Clara, enjoy a simple existence and each other's company. Over time, they meet a man, Pleyel, who joins their little society. Pleyel and Weiland are well-matched in their arguments about the importance of faith and one's belief in God (Weiland) versus rational knowledge of the world and a reliance on empirical fact (Pleyel).
One day, Clara meets an odd-looking man who intrigues her. Pleyel recounts his relationship with said man, Carwin, who occasionally visits them as well. But, it seems, members of this group are having problems. For example, Weiland hears Catherine's voice when she can't possibly have been present. Others start to hear voices and start to accuse one another of uncharacteristic actions. Of course, Carwin is to blame—he impersonates the Weilands to escape detection in certain situations and, at times, to flatter his own vanity. Eventually, Weiland hears voices (which he attributes to God) and obeys their dictate to kill his family. Oh Charles! How droll!
So, through this synopsis, you can see how Brockden Brown builds the drama. But what I really loved in this book was the (possibly unintentional) humor. Case in point: seeing Pleyel approach Clara's house, Carwin throws his voice to impersonate Clara as if she were in flagrante delicto with him. Though Clara has been nothing if not wise and chaste, Pleyel believes his ears and confronts her. During this confrontation, he confesses that he has suspected Carwin to be a thief and a murder but has withheld this information from her because—get this—he did not think that she would be in danger. Um, Player? You invited a possible thief and a murder into your circle of friends: your bad. Of course, Pleyel also accuses Clara of being a slattern, which she vehemently denies. Later, Pleyel sees a newspaper report in which details police efforts to capture Carwin. Though he fears for Clara's life, he must verify the report through two sources before going to rescue her (the hilarity continues!). So, to recap, Pleyel bases his knowledge of Clara's promiscuity on her voice (without visual confirmation), but he must independently verify the newspaper report of Carwin's crimes. Twice. In a time of potential danger. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Golden!
Anyhow, back at her house, Carwin has indeed cornered Clara in her room, but he indicates that he has only come to confess. Not to rape her. Even though he could. Um, dude? By throwing your voice, you've already kind of ruined her reputation. Too little, too late. As it turns out, Carwin is responsible for all of the voices that the Weiland family has been hearing except the ones telling Weiland to kill his family. (Tee-hee.) Even so, he saves Clara from being killed by Weiland by throwing the "voice of God" which intones that Clara should be spared.
In the end, Weiland is imprisoned or goes to the nutfarm (I forget). Carwin escapes, and—wonder of all wonders—Clara finally ends up married to Pleyel. The guy, if you will recall, who accused her...of promiscuity. Priceless! So, for those of you familiar with early American literature of the Rip Van Winkle or Sleepy Hollow variety, I think you'll find an engaging and largely unlauded talent in Mr. Brockden Brown. Far from simply making us laugh at our self-constructed fears, he plumbs the humor from our most horrific and shocking moments.