As it turned out, Charles Brockden Brown (our first novelist) was in my closet…
Groan. How boring–digging through dusty boxes of who knows what reference and research materials that went back many years.
Still, I knew it had to be done before I “threw the baggage out,” to channel Rex Harrison’s line from My Fair Lady.
A tattered manila folder caught my eye. What was this… then… “I remember this envelope”…no, it can’t be… but it was… the copy of my Master’s Degree Thesis that had been mailed to me by the University of Rhode Island after it had been defended and accepted in 1968.
In 1968, I was a graduate student at URI completing a Master’s Degree in English, which had been my undergraduate major at the University of Florida. I was also a Lieutenant on active duty in the U.S. Navy, serving as an Instructor at Naval OCS in Newport, with a wife and two young daughters.
I struggled to complete the degree after I was transferred to Norfolk, and also because after my topic had been approved – The Theme of Initiation in the Four Major Novels of Charles Brockton Brown – my advisor had accepted a position at Marquette, and was replaced by a professor who literally detested my research focus. An academic import from England, in her view, there was no such thing as “American literature.”
However, I was excited about my topic and pursued a close reading (she also hated “new criticism“) of Brown’s major novels to identify elements in his plot structure that might have their origins in the initiation theme that courses through Western literature. During a brief meeting in 1966 I had discussed this line of analysis with Dr. Joseph Campbell. He encouraged me to pursue this focus in my research.
I was so determined to complete this research and explore the implications of my findings that I invested some scant family resources in “new technology” – an IBM Selectric II electric typewriter. It enabled me to type much faster, and to prepare the thesis which had to be submitted as an original with four carbon copies. I continued to work on the thesis even after I was transferred from Newport to Norfolk and a major fleet staff position in 1967.
Finally, I completed the thesis, and successfully defended it in June 1968. After I submitted the required copies, I heard nothing for a while, then received the degree in the mail along with a manila envelope containing the fourth carbon copy of the thesis.
Much later, I saw a bound copy on the shelf in the URI library in Kingston. Then, the thesis disappeared from view for many years.
Fast-forward to some months ago when I was exploring boxes of research material, trying to decide what to keep and what to discard. Somewhat miraculously after who knows how many moves – my wife and I have lived in 11 homes since our marriage in 1961 – the tattered manila envelope containing the fourth carbon reappeared.
When I conducted a basic literature search, I found no mention of my thesis. Subsequent scholarship had added a great deal to our appreciation for Brown’s contribution to American literature – indeed as one of our literary pioneers – a grenzganger, as Hagenbüchle noted. However, it did not seem that the critics and scholars had identified or explored the connections between the plot structure of his major novels and the initiation theme.
Therefore, I undertook to reconstitute the original thesis and to incorporate wherever possible and appropriate, new research and findings that were relevant to the basic premise. The onion skin paper of the old carbon was fragile but it was still readable. Unfortunately, the slow migration of the carbon into the paper made the barely legible “carbon copy” unreadable when I tried to scan it into digital text.
Thank goodness for Dragon NS.
I spent many hours talking about Arthur Mervyn, Dr. Stevens, Achsa Fielding, Theodore Wieland, and Edgar Huntly, and other major characters in Brown’s novels as I redictated the thesis into Word. What remarkable improvements have been made in technology since the thesis was completed in 1968–from IBM Selectric II, to powerful desktop computers running programs that had not been dreamed of 48 years ago, from Argus C4 35mm color film cameras to digital image SLR’s that download their rich images into the PC where they can be improved or shared with a world-wide audience in seconds.
Brown is relevant today as a pioneer and frontier crosser of what was just emerging as a distinctly American body of literature and writing. What intrigued me was the extent to which the plots for his major novels reflected the initiation theme that influenced so much of Western literature.
As the Abstract explains:
“Charles Brockton Brown (1771–1810), published prolifically in the late 18th century, in a wide variety of media and contexts, including nine novels (1798-1801). Weiland, Ormond, Edgar Huntly, and Arthur Mervyn – have been the focus of most commentary and criticism, based on their intensity, violence, complexity, and their incorporation of both fiction and historical material.
In these four major novels, Brown used the journey of the hero searching for experience and rational maturity—the theme of initiation—as the framework within which he explored the inner life of his characters, and where dramatic action often takes place on the untamed frontier of the newly fledged United States. He was the first major American novelist to penetrate and describe the subconscious, and simultaneously to comprehend and employ a unifying mythological-psychological theme throughout his major novels.
Brown’s fictional works reveal a truly American literary alchemist adapting old world literary formulas to a new society, a new constituency of readers, in a New World. He explored new formulations of historical, fictional, and psychological elements that, however imperfect, would serve as guides for other writers who would continue his pioneering efforts. Brown’s major novels can be seen as reflecting the point at which a distinctly American literature began evolving from its European roots.
Brown’s fictional works reveal a truly American fictional alchemist adapting old world literary formulas to a new society and a new constituency. When the old formulas didn’t work, he explored new formulations that, however imperfect, would serve as guides for other writers who would continue his pioneering efforts to establish a new and distinct American literature. By incorporating both historical, fictional, and psychological elements in his writing, he was establishing a new framework and context for generations of subsequent American authors.
Although Brown was not to win the mythical hero’s “decisive victory” with his writing in his short lifetime, his victory and boon can be seen as his innovative body of work, and the numerous “frontier boundaries” of contemporary fiction he crossed.
Charles Brockden Brown was indeed a grenzganger of American Fiction, crossing literary frontiers to open up New Worlds of self-awareness, self-exploration, and a powerful, uniquely American art form for generations of subsequent American authors and readers.”
The revised and updated thesis will soon be published through ProQuest.
The process brings to mind a take-off on a current TV commercial: “What’s in your closet?”