Page images


the sea with the enthusiasm of Alfieri, and sums up an imaginary case, as president of a law society, with the grave reasoning of a Blackstone. The remarkable feature in his intellectual character was this union of analytical with imaginative power. So contented was he when his literary and domestic tastes were entirely gratified, as was the case during the last few years of his life, that he writes to one of his friends that the only thing which mars his felicity is the idea of its possible interruption. He fell into a gradual decline; and his wife declares that “he surrendered up not one faculty of his soul but with his last breath."

A prolific English novelist expressed bis surprise at the discovery of what he called a tendency to supernaturalism in our people, having always regarded the American character as exclusively practical and matter-of-fact. It seems, however, that both individuals and communities are apt to develop in extremes ; and that there is some occult affinity between the achieving faculty and the sense of wonder. Shakspeare has inwrought his grand superstitious creation amid vital energies of purpose and action, and thus brought into striking contrast the practical efficiency and spiritual dependence of our nature. The coïncidence is equally remarkable, whether it be considered as artistic ingenuity or natural fact; and probably, as in other instances, the great dramatist was true to both motives. The more strictly utilitarian the life, the more keen, it would appear, is a zest for the marvellous ; from that principle of reäction which causes a neglected element of the soul to assert itself with peculiar emphasis. No class of people are kept in more stern and continuous alliance with reality than silors and the poor Irish; and yet among them fanciful superstition is proverbially rife. There is, therefore, no absolute incongruity between the most literal sagacity in affairs and outward experience, and a thorough recognition of the mysterious.

The theological acumen and hardy intelligence of the New England colonists did not suffice against witchcraft and its horrible results; seers flourished among the shrewd Scotch, and gypsy fortune-telling in the rural districts of England. The faculty or sentiment to which these and other delusions appeal, in our more cultivated era, finds scope and gratification in the revelations

, of science; and so nearly connected are the natural and super


natural, the seen and the unseen, the mysterious and the familiar, that a truly reverent and enlightened mind is often compelled to acknowledge that a sceptical and obstinate rationalism is as much opposed to truth as a visionary and credulous spirit. There is an intuitive as well as a reasoning faith; and presentiments, dreams, vivid reminiscences, and sympathetic phenomena, of which introspective natures are conscious, indicate to the calmest reflection that we are linked to the domain of moral experience and of destiny by more than tangible relations. Hence the receptive attitude of the highest order of minds in regard to spiritual theories, the consolation found in the doctrines of Swedenborg, and the obvious tendency that now prevails to interpret art, literature, and events, according to an ideal or philosophical view.

It is a curious fact, in the history of American letters, that the genius of our literary pioneer was of this introspective order.

If we examine the writings of Brown, it is evident that they only rise to high individuality in the analysis of emotion, and the description of states of mind. In other respects, though industrious, wise, and able, he is not impressively original; but in following out a metaphysical vein, in making the reader absolutely cognizant of the revery, fears, hopes, imaginings, that "puzzle the will,” or concentrate its energies, he obeyed a singular idiosyncrasy of his nature, a Shakspearian tendency, and one, at that period, almost new as a chief element of fiction. The powerful use made of its entrancing spell by Godwin was the foundation of his fame; and it has been stated, upon good authority, that Brown's mind was put upon the track by “ Caleb Wil' liams," and also that Godwin has been heard to allude to Brown as a suggestive writer in the same vein. The consciousness of the former was the great source of his intensity. He was one of those sensitive and thoughtful men who found infinite pleasure in the study of his own nature; and traced the course of a passion or the formation of a theory with a zest and acuteness similar to that with which a geologist investigates fossils and strata delighting in that which suggests limitless relations, and touches the most expansive circle of human speculation. Mrs. Radeliffe understood how to excite the superstitious instinct, but it was by melo-dramatic and scenical rather than psychological means. In

[ocr errors]

the process of Brown there is a more rational mystery. He bases his marvellous incidents upon some principle of truth or fact in science, and keeps interest alive by the effect on the sympathies or curiosity of his personages. He identifies himself with the working of their minds, and, by casting his best descriptions in autobiographical form, makes them more real through the personality of the narrative. He has been called an anatomist of the mind; and the peculiar nature of his genius may be inferred from the kind of influences under which he loved to depict human nature -- such as the phenomena of Pestilence in

“Ormond” and “ Arthur Mervyn,” Somnambulism, in " Edgar Huntley,” and Ventriloquism, in “Wieland.”'

This love of the marvellous, as it is called, in its ordinary aspects, and recognition of the spiritual, as its higher phase may be defined, is common to the least cultivated and the most gifted of human beings. Whoever has considered the speculations of Shelley on dreams, the theories of Coleridge in regard to the action and reaction of life and the soul, or heard Allston tell a ghost story, must have been convinced that there is a natural provision for wonder as well as for reason in select intelligences. The art of dealing with this feeling, however, is one of the most subtle of inventions, that fatal step from the sublime to the ridiculous being constantly imminent. One reason that Brockden Brown succeeded was, that a self-possessed intelligence, a reflective process, goes on simultaneously before the reader's mind with the scene of mystery or horror enacting; he cannot despise as weak the spectator, or the victim that can so admirably portray his state of feeling, and the current of his thoughts at such a crisis of fate. Witness the description of the scene with a panther, and the defence of Wieland.

There is an association of the marvellous recorded by Dunlap, the friend and biographer of Brown, which links itself readily to this vein of the weird and adventurous he delighted to unfold. It appears his name of Brockden was derived from an English progenitor, who nearly lost his life in consequence of overhearing a conspiracy, when a boy, against Charles the Second, and was sent to America to avoid the consequences; and there is manifest in the only lineal descendant of the novelist the same passion for experiment in actual life which inspired the latter in the worll of opinion and fancy. The vigor, directness, and energy,

of Brown's mind, increased with discipline; for, although his last novel is inferior to its predecessors, his last pamphlet is marked by great cogency and eloquence. His stock of knowledge, his range of observation, and his benign projects, expanded with his years; and no judicious and kindly reader can examine his literary remains, and ponder the facts of his brief career, without sharing the grief of those who lamented his early death as a public not less than a personal misfortune.

Crudity seems the necessary condition of a nascent literature; and a large amount of excellent material exists, in a printed form, which is destined to be recast, in a vital and artistic shape, by the American author. Style is the conservative element of ideas and traditions; and the hasty manner in which many of our writers have produced even their best works, the absence of a high and nice standard of taste, as well as of inspiring literary sympathy, accounts for the incomplete, unlabored, and fugitive shape in which the national mind has chiefly developed. The exceptions to this general rule do not invalidate its prevalence; and the high finish which Irving, Longfellow, Hawthorne, and other American writers, have bestowed on their productions, is in striking contrast with the unequal, careless, and fragmentary character of the average issues of the press.

In the case of Brown we have to regret the absence of careful revision and sustained labor. He opened a mine from which others have wrought images of more enduring beauty. Not anticipating any great result, conscious of toiling in an isolated field, and deprived of the encouragement to assiduous and refined toil which only warm and intelligent recognition affords, we cannot be surprised that he was satisfied to give utterance to his inventive talent, and indulge his personal taste, without striving to perpetuate their emanations. He wrote with great rapidity; his delicate organization forbade the prolonged endurance of mental glow; and, therefore, in almost every instance, his pages give indications of weariness towards the close. Many of his works were written and printed simultaneously; he did not apparently realize that the vein of fiction in which he excelled could be worked up into a standard value, or interest; but gave it vent without pausing to correct verbal inaccuracies, or condense and polish the style.

He was capable of giving to his theme the unity and finish of “The Sketch Book," the “Idle Man," or the "Scarlet Letter;" but he lived and wrote at a time and under influences in which such genial care received little praise ; and we must look to the elements and not the form of his genius in order to do justice to his memory. The same kind of moral diagnosis, if we may use the phrase, which gives to Balzac's creations their singular hold upon the imagination, under the impulse of literary art, would have enshrined the name of the American novelist; he possessed as decided a love of exploring the very sources of affection, and dissecting character through all the convolutions of appearance. No one can read his novels without feeling that Brown was a psychologist, as well as a scholar; and the critic of judgment and candor must admit that his perception of the intricate in mental processes, and the profound and the conflicting in human emotion, if embodied in a choice dramatic or elaborate narrative form, would have continued to interest like the tragedies of Joanna Baillie and the romances of Scott. As it is, we turn to our countryman's writings with that peculiar interest which belongs only to what is initiative ; full of promise, and significant of beauty, truth, and power, in a transition or inadequately developed state. We trace the footsteps of genius ere they move with entire confidence, follow them in wayward paths, and turn, with curious sympathy, from the works of more fortunate, though not more richly-endowed writers, to these early and original specimens.

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »