‘All men are, at times, influenced by inexplicable sentiments’ – “Somnambulism: a fragment,” by Charles Brockden Brown

November 17, 2009 at 2:38 am (books, Short stories)

Here is the passage in its entirety:

“All men are, at times, influenced by inexplicable sentiments. Ideas haunt them in spite of all their efforts to discard them. Prepossessions are entertained, for which their reason is unable to discover any adequate  cause. The strength of a belief when it is destitute of any rational foundation, seems, of itself, to furnish a new ground for credulity. We first admit a powerful persuasion, and then, from reflecting on the insufficiency of the ground on which it is built, instead of being prompted to dismiss it, we become more forcibly attached to it.

A man called Althorpe tries to warn a certain Mr. Davis and his daughter against embarking on a nighttime journey. He is sure  they will come to some harm. The more frantically he entreats them the more determined they become to execute their proposed plan.

Althorpe is especially agonized over the possibility – in his eyes, the probability – of harm coming to Miss Davis. She is beautiful; she is loved by him – and she is betrothed to another. In his desperation, he offers to accompany them on their sojourn. His offer is politely but firmly declined. And so they set off, father and daughter, along with a carriage driver also acting as a guide.

Meanwhile Althorpe is at war with himself. He knows his fears are irrational, yet he is powerless to quiet them: “How ignominious to be thus the slave of a fortuitous and inexplicable impulse! To be the victim of terrors more chimerical than those which haunt the dreams of idiots and children!”

On reading those lines, I was immediately put in mind of this one:  “TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” It is the opening sentence of Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart.” The content is not exactly the same, but it’s close enough. Even more remarkable is the similarity of tone – the urgency, the near panic, the fear of encroaching insanity.

So, who is Charles Brockden Brown? Here’s the first paragraph of the  Wikipedia entry:

“Charles Brockden Brown (January 17, 1771 – February 22, 1810), an American novelist, historian, and editor of the Early National period, is generally regarded by scholars as the most ambitious and accomplished US novelist before James Fenimore Cooper. He is the most frequently studied and republished practitioner of the “early American novel,” or the US novel between 1789 and roughly 1820. Although Brown was by no means the first American novelist, as some early criticism claimed, the breadth and complexity of his achievement as a writer in multiple genres (novels, short stories, essays and periodical writings of every sort, poetry, historiography, reviews) makes him a crucial figure in US literature and culture of the 1790s and 1800s, and a significant public intellectual in the wider Atlantic print culture and public sphere of the era of the French Revolution.

To which one can only append the question: Who knew?

And here’s another question: Why am I reading this story in the first place? The answer is that it is the first selection in a splendid new two-volume anthology called American Fantastic Tales, from Library of America:

I vaguely remember Charles Brockden Brown from my undergraduate English major days. But his is not a name that I have often encountered since then. “Somnambulism”  makes extremely compelling reading, not least because of the remarkable way in which it prefigures the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. (Brown died one year prior to Poe’s birth.)

That there exists a Charles Brockden Brown Society gives me hope for civilization. (The site is hosted by the University of Central Florida.)

Charles Brockden Brown

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