Saturday, October 20, 2018

The English Professor and the Early American Author

Another of my uncles has died. His older brother died just two months before him. There were eight boys in their family all together. Just two remain. Four served in the U.S. military during World War II: two in the U.S. Army Air Force (one in China-Burma-India, the other in the Philippines) and two in the U.S. Navy in the South Pacific. All four came home after the war but to a household in which their mother was absent: she died less than a month after the war ended. Four more of the boys served during the 1950s, one in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, another in the U.S.S. Iowa off the coast of Korea, still another in the U.S. Air Force, and the youngest as a photographer on board the aircraft carriers Antietam and Wasp. Their only sister, though she wanted to join up during World War II, did not serve in the military. Instead she worked in national defense and was injured in a fall from a loading dock. My uncles had big voices, big personalities, big appetites for booze, food, cigarettes, and cigars, and some of them were good-looking enough to have been movie stars. They were, as so many men and women of their generation were, larger than life.

I'm back now after the funeral. We buried the sixth-born of my uncles on Tuesday next to his parents. He was the one who served on board the Iowa, nicknamed "the Great Grey Ghost of the Korean Coast." He was also one of the first of his family to attend college. At least a couple of his great-grandparents were illiterate immigrants from western Ireland. His grandparents worked in the meatpacking industry in Indianapolis. My uncle broke from the past (or stood on their shoulders) by becoming an English professor. He studied at La Salle College and received his master's degree from Temple University. In 1966, he went to the State University of New York at Albany, where he studied under Mary Elizabeth Grenander (1918-1998), a poet, philanthropist, and professor of English. She was an authority on Ambrose Bierce, and she edited and introduced Poems of Ambrose Bierce, published in 1995 by the University of Nebraska Press. We are about a month away from the one-hundredth anniversary of her birth.

At Albany, my uncle carried out research on the early-American author Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810), and I believe he was planning to have the fruits of his research published in professional journals. He told us not very long ago that he felt that he was beaten to the punch by other researchers, and so he set aside his work. Instead he became an instructor, then a professor in English at the Community College of Philadelphia, in the same city in which Charles Brockden Brown was born. We still have some of my uncle's research. I hope to go through it to see what might still be publishable.

Although Charles Brockden Brown was not forgotten after his death, he lay in relative obscurity until new editions of his works were published in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I don't know whether my uncle discovered Brown on his own or was directed to him by one of his professors, perhaps even by M.E. Grenander. In any case, scholarship on Brown seems to have begun taking off in the 1960s. Now we even have a Charles Brockden Brown Society, founded in 2000.

Brown read the works of Gothic and Romantic authors in England and is supposed to have been influenced by them. In return, he is supposed to have influenced similar authors in the United States and England, including Mary Shelley (1797-1851). We are in the bicentennial year of her most famous novel/romance, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. (Among other things, that book offers a lesson to those who would attempt to exercise God-like power.) Mary Shelley is sometimes considered the author of the first science fiction novel. I won't argue for or against that idea. Instead I'll point out that Charles Brockden Brown was also an author of genre works, which might be called Gothic romances. These include Wieland, or, The Transformation (1798), Arthur Mervyn: Memoirs of the Year 1793 (1799), and Ormond; or, The Secret Witness (1799). His works of short fiction are comparatively few, but they include "Somnambulism: A Fragment" (1784), reprinted at least once in recent years as a short story.

Like Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), Brown died young (at age thirty-nine, versus age forty for Poe; they came within two days of sharing a birthday). Unlike Poe, Brown was not well remembered after his death, even if his works were reprinted more than once during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It seems pretty unlikely to me that the editors, publishers, readers, and fans of Weird Tales would have known very much about him. One exception (always an exception) was H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote, in his study "Supernatural Horror in Literature "(1925-1927; revised 1933-1934):
Of Mrs. Radcliffe's countless imitators, the American novelist Charles Brockden Brown stands the closest in spirit and method. Like her, he injured his creations by natural explanations; but also like her, he had an uncanny atmospheric power which gives his horrors a frightful vitality as long as they remain unexplained. He differed from her in contemptuously discarding the external Gothic paraphernalia and properties and choosing modern American scenes for his mysteries; but his repudiation did not extend to the Gothic spirit and type of incident. Brown's novels involve some memorably frightful scenes, and excel even Mrs. Radcliffe's in describing the operations of the perturbed mind. Edgar Huntly starts with a sleep-walker digging a grave, but is later impaired by touches of Godwinian didacticism. Ormond involves a member of a sinister secret brotherhood. That and Arthur Mervyn both describe the plague of yellow fever, which the author had witnessed in Philadelphia and New York. But Brown's most famous book is Wieland; or, The Transformation (1798), in which a Pennsylvania German, engulfed by a wave of religious fanaticism, hears "voices" and slays his wife and children as a sacrifice. His sister Clara, who tells the story, narrowly escapes. The scene, laid at the woodland estate of Mittingen on the Schuylkill's remote reaches, is drawn with extreme vividness; and the terrors of Clara, beset by spectral tones, gathering fears, and the sound of strange footsteps in the lonely house, are all shaped with truly artistic force. In the end a lame ventriloquial explanation is offered, but the atmosphere is genuine while it lasts. Carwin, the malign ventriloquist, is a typical villain of the Manfred or Montoni type.
So the readers of Weird Tales never saw Brown's work in their favorite magazine. Fortunately, readers of today will easily discover his fiction and non-fiction, even the most obscure or previously hard to find, in inexpensive editions.

I wish that my uncle had completed his work on Charles Brockden Brown and that it had gotten into print, but these are the things that happen in a man's life: One path taken instead of another. A life lived here rather than there, with these people rather than with those. Who can say which is or might be best?

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

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