"Mazy Paths but Lead to Ill": Locating the Public in the Novels of Charles Brockden Brown


Kenneth Lai


James Steintrager, Professor of English, University of California, Irvine

Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810), one of the premiere novelists of the early American republic, was the father of what we now know as American Gothic, which features stories of supernatural encounters outside the confines of castles. While he left only 4 novels, Brown wrote numerous historical essays, pamphlets, journals and letters. My essay argues that Brown's Gothic interests lie not so simply in the aesthetic of horror, but also, and more importantly, in the cultivation of a thinking public. In his essays, Brown is deeply interested in how the romance genre serves the function of high historical and philosophical discourse for the masses. I argue that this interest motivates a didactic tone in Brown's novels. In Wieland, for instance, the antagonist's use of ventriloquism is simultaneously a device of horror and an analogy to the Illuminati scare in the late-18th century. Approaching Brown from both historical texts and historiographical thinkers such as Reinhart Koselleck and J├╝rgen Habermas who trace dialectical transformations of public and private spaces, I claim that Brown's interests in the novel genre can be traced back to the Republic of Letters and back even further to the dynamic, disconcerting, and indeed, horrific question of proper governance. Brown's employment of "public" education became a fundamental aspect of the Gothic genre, a genre largely reclaimed after two decades of uninterest postdating Anne Radcliffe's novels. This interest in fostering a critical republic would survive in the Gothic genre at least until Edgar Allan Poe, after which I argue the genre largely shifts from questions about the state to aesthetics of horror.

Presented by:

Kenneth Lai


Saturday, November 23, 2013


9:55 AM — 10:10 AM


Deihl 104

Presentation Type:

Oral Presentation


English Literature