Wieland is a perhaps the most famous early American novel: a horror story about a family destroyed by mysterious voices that come out of the air with warnings and commands. Narrated in plainspoken prose by Clara, the sister of the titular Wieland, the novel depicts a family attempting to devote itself to the reasonable discourse befitting a young republic; they regularly gather in a neoclassical-style temple with a bust of Cicero in the center. (But the temple was designed by their father, a religious fanatic immigrant from Germany who died under strange circumstances.) I won’t spoil the plot if you don’t know it already, but as in many Gothic novels, the agent of the apparently supernatural actions turns out to be human. Or does he? The novel leaves a lot of things unexplained—many weird events escape its ostensible commitment to reason. The effect—and, I suppose, the purpose—is to call into question reason itself, perhaps to sound a rueful warning about that reason’s political corollary in democratic governance. On the other hand, perhaps the novel offers itself as a solution to the problem of endemic fanaticism and passion: maybe the novel is a proto-Freudian “writing cure” to keep us all sane.
As for its quality, Wieland is powerfully intense in parts, but between those parts are acres of verbiage, mainly consisting of Clara’s self-interrogations and effusions. I understand the point of this type of writing—the novel even at this moment in its history is supposed to make the inner life public—but it does grow tiresome after a while, and one begins to appreciate Jane Austen’s genius in dispensing with the first-person narrators of all those eighteenth-century epistolary and memoiristic novels and instead revealing subjective states through free indirect style, not to mention Poe’s insight that the communication of fear and terror benefits from narrative compression.
This volume contains an unfinished prequel, the memoir of Wieland‘s villain. I found this more interesting than Wieland itself, since it details more of the political and philosophical context of Brown’s fictional world. In short, Carwin, a would-be intellectual escaped from the Pennsylvania farm of his oppressively know-nothing father, encounters a political radical named Ludloe who invites him to join an Illuminati-like secret society that may have already founded a utopia on an island in the southern hemisphere…and then the text breaks off. It seemed like we were going to find out more about the political stance of these texts, especially if the Rousseauist/Godwinian ideals are shown to be sinister, but alas. (I gather that Brown’s political views are hotly debated by scholars.)
These novels are well worth reading, for their moments of high drama and terror and for their hardly mitigated skepticism, even if they can’t equal the power of the novels and stories they went on to influence—those of Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville.