Charles Brockden Brown is often cited as America’s first Gothic novelist, but frequently, James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne are credited with taking the Gothic out of European castles and placing it in the American forest. The truth is that Brown deserves that credit as well in his finest Gothic novel, Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, published in 1799.
I recently read Edgar Huntly for the first time and was surprised to find that I thought it was the best of Brown’s novels. I had read Ormond years ago and found it very dull, but being a fan of the Gothic and literary history, I went on to read Arthur Mervyn, which had some fabulously suspenseful scenes, and Wieland, which is known for its use of ventriloquism, though I found it a bit slow. But I think Brown truly wrote his masterpiece in Edgar Huntly for several reasons, most importantly, that it maintains the level of suspense throughout.
I won’t give a full plot outline, but just hit on a few high points. The novel begins with the title character grieving the death of his friend Waldegrave, who was murdered, but the murderer remains unknown. Brown uses the manuscript technique, in this case in the form of a letter, to have Huntly describe the events of the novel to Waldegrave’s sister, Mary, who is also Huntly’s love interest. A collection of papers belonging to Waldegrave is also in Huntly’s possession, which eventually go missing, hence more manuscript usages.
Huntly soon observes a servant who lives nearby, Clithero, sleepwalking and digging in the ground to hide something, making him suspect Clithero is Waldegrave’s murderer and sleepwalking due to a guilty conscience. Huntly learns from Clithero’s fellow servant and bedfellow that he has overheard Clithero uttering guilt-ridden speeches in his sleep. Finally, Huntly confronts Clithero and from him hears his full story of despair and guilt and crime and how he fled Ireland to come to America. The story is part of the stories within stories Gothic technique and provides plenty of Gothic themes, including social mobility that suggests transgression, gambling, and illegitimate children, not all Clithero’s crimes but those of his mistress’ brother, whom he eventually kills, thus staining his hands with blood. I’ll leave all the details for interested readers to discover, but it turns out Clithero is not the murderer of Waldegrave. What Clithero is, however, is a Gothic Wanderer figure, one who believes he has also killed his mistress, and who feels incredible guilt and is in exile for it. Huntly refers to Clithero as a “wanderer” and Brown does an amazing thing in showing Huntly willing to forgive Clithero when he still thinks him Waldegrave’s murderer, saying he will befriend and help heal him once he hears his confession. This desire to redeem the Gothic wanderer is rare in early Gothic works and more of a Victorian theme. Whether or not Clithero is worthy of redemption will be seen at the novel’s end.
After telling Huntly his story, Clithero flees into the woods in despair. Huntly searches for him and finds him perched high up on a rock but Huntly cannot reach the summit and returns home. Soon after, Huntly finds himself in a strange cave and believes himself to have been abducted. The novel’s suspense really skyrockets at this point as Huntly makes his way out of the cave and has to get past savages as well as rescue a white girl who is their captive. From that point, Huntly goes through a series of adventures in the forest that result in some truly suspenseful scenes as he constantly fears death at the Indians’ hands. The novel, of course, is racist in its attitude toward Native Americans, but that doesn’t eliminate the very real fear that a white man would have felt in this situation, and it does make the forest truly Gothic in atmosphere.
I’ll leave it up to readers to discover how the plot turns out and who murdered Waldegrave. There are several twists and turns, though Huntly’s time in the forest fleeing from the Indians takes up a good half of the novel, and at times, I thought perhaps Brown had almost forgotten about the plot concerning Clithero and Waldegrave, but they are brought back in the end and all explanations made.
The book is not perfect, but it is probably the best Gothic work before Poe and Hawthorne. (I don’t think Cooper, despite the suspense of his stories, really qualifies as Gothic since he doesn’t rely on typical Gothic themes like manuscripts, the supernatural, transgression, etc.) Brown writes more realistic Gothic fiction, not using the supernatural, but all the other elements are present in his work. The novel’s faults include the sleepwalking—both Clithero and Huntly turn out to be sleepwalkers, which seems unbelievable to me; I have yet to know anyone who actually sleepwalks in my life. The other fault that makes Brown tiresome at times is the sheer wordiness of his writing. He continually repeats himself and lets Huntly think through the same matters multiple times. One phrase that I found completely laughable was when Huntly said, “by a common apparatus, that lay beside my bed, I could instantly produce a light. The light was produced.” Why couldn’t Huntly have just said, “I lit a candle”? Despite these faults, there is suspense up to the last moment, even when the wordiness gets in the way.
Anyone who loves Gothic fiction and loves Poe and Hawthorne would find Edgar Huntly the best novel to read as an introduction to Charles Brockden Brown. The American Gothic tradition owes a huge debt to him.
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the upcoming novel Arthur’s Legacy, The Children of Arthur: Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com