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British Association for American Studies


Issue 2, Autumn 2001 article 1


Issue 2, Autumn 2001 article 1

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 2, Autumn 2001

Private Properties, Public Nuisance: Arthur Mervyn and The Rise and Fall of a Republican Machine

Sarah Wood
© Sarah Wood. All Rights Reserved

An amalgam of gothic tale, historical romance and picaresque adventure, Charles Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn; Or Memoirs of the Year 1793, was published in 1799, with a second part following in 1800. Its plot is notoriously complex but goes something like this: Arthur Mervyn, struck by yellow fever on the streets of Philadelphia, is taken in by the benevolent Dr Stevens. When Mervyn is later accused of being an accomplice to embezzler, Thomas Welbeck, he tells his life story to Dr Stevens in order to clear his name: according to the tale he tells, Arthur is a country youth who was driven from home by a cruel stepmother, fleeced of his slender fortune on the road to Philadelphia and robbed of his belongings on arrival. Deciding that city life was not for him, he determined to return to the countryside, but before he had a chance to leave, was offered shelter by Welbeck, a wealthy and mysterious stranger, who lived with his daughter, Clemenza, and took Arthur into his service as a copyist. Discovering that Clemenza was in fact Welbeck’s unfortunate mistress, and Welbeck himself an embezzler, forger and murderer, Mervyn left for the country, took work on the Hadwin farm and fell in love with young Eliza Hadwin. Returning to plague-stricken Philadelphia purely to ascertain the fate of Hadwin’s beloved nephew, Arthur contracted the fever himself, and was found in this state by Dr. Stevens.

Part II of the text sees Arthur exonerated from suspicion, restored to health, and returning to the Hadwin farm, where he finds Eliza is the sole survivor of the plague. After several false starts, he successfully deposits her in a safe-house, rescues Clemenza from the brothel where Welbeck has left her, then sets about redressing Welbeck’s other wrongs. His tireless philanthropy earns him the love and respect of affluent widow, Ascha Fielding, and their marriage is imminent at the end of the novel. It need only be added that Arthur’s version ofevents does not always tally with the evidence, Arthur himself would appear to benefit most from his own ‘benevolent activities,’ and many readers find his meteoric rise to success suspicious to say the least.[1]

For Philadelphian doctor, Benjamin Rush, writing in 1778, ‘Virtue, Virtue alone […] is the basis of a Republic,’ and every citizen should ‘be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property.’[2] By 1793, the year in which Arthur Mervyn arrives in the city, Rush’s self-sacrificing concept of republican virtue was under attack and on the wane. In Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790’s, Joyce Appleby explains that in ‘the context of classical republican thought, virtue meant civic virtue, the quality that enabled men to rise above private interests in order to act for the good of the whole.’ But by the end of the eighteenth century, argues Appleby, ‘virtue more often referredto a private quality, a man’s capacity to look out for himself and his dependants—almost the opposite of classical virtue.’[3] In Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America, Linda Kerber also demonstrates the privatization of republican values, describing the way in which republican values went indoors, unworkable within a competitivemarket economy but supposedly safeguarded by a generation of ‘Republican Mothers,’ called upon to infuse their sons with the same republican values that their husbands seemed so ready to ignore.[4] This paper will argue that Arthur Mervyn strenuously resists the privatization of republican values, exposing the impurity of the domestic sphere and the precariousness of private property. It will suggest that Mervyn prises open the bolted door of the domestic sphere and foists his philanthropic attentions upon reluctant beneficiaries in order to forge for himself a positive self-image and a place in the public eye. And turning to the final chapters of the text, where Arthur abandons his public in order to take on the private role of husband, I shall argue that an early retirement from public life sees Arthur confronting the collapse of the self he has worked so hard to construct.

Following his uninvited entry into Mrs. Wentworth’s home, where he has ‘opened doors without warning, and traversed passages without being noticed,’[5] Arthur concedes that ‘propriety has certainly not been observed,’ (552) though he willfully stands his ground when she orders him out. Denied an audience at the Villars brothel, he snoops around anyway and makes such a nuisance of himself that he ends up being shot in the head by an infuriated inhabitant of the house. When he makes an unexpected call on the Maurice family, the door is once again shut in his face, but Arthur lifts the latch and ventures in regardless, deaf to the distress of Miss Maurice, who orders her servants to turn him out, and ‘burst[s] into tears of rage’ when he just won’t go. (574) On this occasion, he is permitted at last to perform his mission, and returns a forty thousand-dollar legacy to its rightful owner. The rightful owner, however, is ungrateful, avaricious and rude, and Arthur leaves the house dejected, disappointed that where he had hoped to ‘witness the tears of gratitude’ he had found ‘Nothing but sordidness, stupidity, and illiberal suspicion.’ (577) The pattern is often repeated: desperate to get his foot in the door, Arthur forgoes propriety in his quest to win access to private property, but once inside, reality falls short of his extravagant expectations.

Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds has argued convincingly that Arthur Mervyn figures the hero’s ‘quest’for ‘the stasis of home,’ a quest that ends successfully as Arthur falls in love with the wealthy Ascha Fielding and ‘turn[s] his fantasies of property into actual investments through the practice of benevolence.’[6] Certainly, we see Mervyn in search of both a home and a property, craving a sense of belonging as well as of ownership, but I would argue that the text repeatedly undermines the ‘fantasies’ of private property. It questions both the purity of the home—the sacrosanct sphere of early republican discourse, where ‘Republican mothers’inspired their sons with a love of virtue—and the stability of property, held up by many as the more secure and prestigious alternative to the ‘portable wealth’ (280) and paper currency that was flooding the United States in the economically volatile 1790s.[7]

The Man at Home, a series of loose-knit sketches, written and published by Brown in 1788, anticipates Arthur Mervyn in its representation of precarious private properties. Narrated by an elderly gentleman who has endorsed a note for an absconder, and is hiding out in order to avoid the confiscation of his property, this so-called man at home is not at home at all. Reluctant to air his dirty laundry in public, he has retired to the obscurity of the suburbs and is actually writing from a rented room in the home of his washerwoman. A steadfast believer in‘the sacredness of property,’ the narrator has only agreed to endorse an old friend’s note because ‘His bottom is a sound one,’ his property comprised not just of ‘floating planks’ but also of ‘houses and acres,’ too.[8] Such faith in property, however, proves unfounded: the friend fails to repay the debt and the man at home, having spent a life ‘labour[ing] not for riches, but security,’ is now forced to seek asylum in a room that is ‘twelve feet square.’ Even this refuge proves unable to protect, for the final installment of the series sees the man at home on the move again, this time on his way to the city jail, accompanied by the sheriff who has tracked him down and smoked him out.

In Arthur Mervyn, the series of dispossessions that punctuate the narrative likewise work to establish a sense of uncertain and insecure proprietorship. Arthur forfeits his father’s ‘hundred acres’ when Sawny Mervyn remarries, and Sawny in turn is defrauded of his land by a self-serving second wife; Clemenza Lodi loses her inheritance to the scheming Welbeck; Eliza Hadwin loses her family farm to a boorish and morally suspect uncle. In an episode that recalls the fugitive Man at Home, Arthur’s first night in Philadelphia finds him in hiding and in somebody else’s house, holed up in Thetford’s bedroom closet, having been tricked into entering the chamber by a mischievous new acquaintance. Arthur hopes that he may ‘be enabled to profit’ from the conversation he overhears; instead, he succeeds in losing his only pair of shoes. Finally managing to escape from his ‘perilous asylum,’ the gullible country youth is palpably relieved to find himself back on ‘public ground,’ ‘disengaged […] from the perilous precincts of private property.’ (266,270)

During the course of the novel, a dispossessed and itinerant Arthur Mervyn takes shelter under various roofs, precarious asylums that promise shelter but peddle disease, disseminating infection even while administering relief. Taken in by Welbeck, Arthur not only shelters in his benefactor’s mansion, he is taken in by the stranger’s plausible exterior, drawn into his fraudulent schemes and rendered a reluctant accomplice in the morally repugnant murder of Watson. Entering a deserted house in search of Wallace, with the yellow fever raging all around, Arthur inhales the ‘poisonous and subtle fluid’ of the plague, (360) is knocked unconscious by a plunderer’s blow to his head, and narrowly escapes being buried alive by a pair of over-zealous corpse collectors. Interestingly, Arthur’s decision to shelter in this house overnight stems less from a desire to protect himself and more from a decision to protect the empty property, for a neighbour informs him that:

This house has no one to defend it. It was purchased and furnished by the last possessor, but the whole family, including mistress, children and servants, were cut off in a single week. Perhaps no one in America can claim the property. Meanwhile plunderers are numerous and active. […] To night, nothing can be done towards rendering it secure, but staying in it. Art thou willing to remain here till the morrow? (368)

Ever ready to defend the helpless, even when the victim is made of bricks and mortar, the gallant Arthur rises to the challenge and decides to stay. The house that provides him with ‘a roof over [his] head’ (370) but has already contaminated him with the yellow fever, thus turns out to be perilous in two senses: it is both dangerous and itself endangered, a deadly receptacle that simultaneously falls ‘prey’ to unscrupulous intruders. With houses like this to contend with, there is little wonder that Arthur feels uneasy when indoors and more secure when on the streets. A restless figure, repeatedly opening windows and pacing the floorboards, Arthur stews in Welbeck’s mansion, agonizing over the probity of his host, until, ‘oppressed’ by ‘the scorching influence of the atmosphere,’ he finally takes refuge outside, in the cooling bath of the courtyard. (295) Whenever there is any thinking to be done, any decisions to be made, Arthur heads for the fields, removing himself from private property and placing himself ‘in the public way.’ (370) In fact, our very first glimpse of Arthur sees him doubled over in the street, a fever-stricken figure who refuses to ‘go into the house’ with Dr. Stevens, determined to remain outdoors, and convinced that he ‘shall breathe with more freedom here than elsewhere.’ (234-5)

Though Arthur is constantly on the move—most at home when he is on the road, striding off down the path of righteousness to rescue those in need—his imagination dwells at length upon the ‘temporary asylum[s]’ (253) that he passes through, figuring them most often as synecdochic ‘roofs:’ when Sawny Mervyn remarries, Arthur wonders ‘at the folly that detained [him] so long under this roof.’ (249-50) Once in the city, he marvels at the miracle that has placed him ‘under this roof’ with Welbeck, (278) but before long can think of no fate worse that ‘that of abiding under the same roof with a wretch spotted with so many crimes.’ (402) While Arthur is afforded relief ‘under this roof,’ (426) Clemenza is received elsewhere by a brothel keeper ‘under an accursed roof.’ (534) Mervyn quite literally seeks asylum beneath a roof when he hides himself above ‘the ceiling of the third story’ of Welbeck’s mansion, in ‘a narrow and darksome nook, formed by the angle of the roof.’ (423) The synecdochic roof does not merely evoke the image of a refuge, a shelter from the elements above; it is a figure of speech that deconstructs the concept of a home with four walls; it dismantles the isolationist ideal of a pure and tightly sealed domestic sphere, one that could bar intrusion from without. For Arthur is anxious to turn the inside out, to open up the private sphere to public view and public use. ‘Loudly condemned’ as a child, for interfering ‘publicly’ with his father’s ‘social enjoyments,’ dissuading Sawny from drinking the liquor that ‘changed him into a maniac,’ Arthur’s own experience of ‘domestic retirement[ ]’ has taught him that too much privacy can be dangerous, concealing the ugly truth of dysfunctional families, degenerate morals and drunken fathers. (539-40) Nor is he alone in this desire to throw open the home: discussing the fate of the ruined Clemenza, Dr. Stevens wonders ‘Who will open his house to the fugitive?’ (430) before eagerly throwing open his own doors to the refugee, as indeed he did for Arthur, too. While a stint at the doctor’s cures Arthur of his fever and restores Clemenza’s blighted reputation, Stevens’ open-house policy also nourishes his own spiritual well being, making for a healthy home life, a happy marriage, and a clear conscience.

Opening one’s home to the public is not a policy that all are advised to adopt, however. Mrs. Wentworth refuses shelter to Clemenza lest she damage her own reputation, and until Ascha Fielding takes in Eliza towards the end of Part II, it would seem that only men have the prerogative to transform a private home into a public house, to play the part of the benevolent citizen. Even when Ascha does decide to shelter Eliza she does so not in the role of dutiful citizen, but—most emphatically—in the strictly domestic capacity of a surrogate-sister: ‘I will not be a nominal sister,’ she insists. ‘I will not be a sister by halves. All the right of that relation will I have, or none.’ (600) The open house assumes a darker aspect still where the dysfunctional Villars family is concerned: this rural home sees the prostitution of three sisters by their mother, a grotesque parody of the Republican Mother, who believes that opening for business all hours of day and night is the only way in which she can ensure the survival of her family and ‘secure to herself and her daughters the benefits of independence.’ (429) In the defensive, anxious atmosphere of 1790s America, where politicians were obsessed with maintaining both national purity and independence, determined to resist the prostitution of American principles to debauched European powers, the image of the flourishing brothel will have seemed especially sinister.

While Benjamin Rush believed that as long as the rising generation received a ‘proper’ education, it would be ‘possible to convert men into republican machines,’[9] Fisher Ames wascharacteristically skeptical, arguing that the idealistic lessons of republicanism were destined to fall upon deaf ears: ‘The republic is a creature of fiction,’ he declared in an essay called ‘The Dangers of American Liberty.’ ‘It is everybody in the fancy, but nobody in the heart.’[10] This certainly appeared to be the case in the summer of 1793, as Philadelphia grappled with the most devastating yellow fever epidemic in American history. With terror taking hold of the populace, the struggle for self-preservation became paramount and the evasion of public responsibility all too evident.

On a national level, what S. S. K. B. Wood sententiously referred to as the ‘Colossian fabric’ of the United States, speedily came undone in the face of the plague.[11] Mathew Carey’s Short Account of the Malignant Fever, which ran to three editions in 1793 alone, recalls how Philadelphian ‘citizens were proscribed in several cities and towns—hunted up like felons in some—debarred admittance and turned back in others.’[12] State and city boundaries that had seemed subsumed by, or at least secondary to, the concept of a United States of America, were now transformed into fractious borders, lines not to be crossed, emblems of a nationdivided by fear. Within the city of Philadelphia itself, the avatars of public responsibility had quickly disappeared to their rural retreats, leaving behind just three ‘Guardians of the poor’ and a city in chaos.[13] The visibly decreasing circles of public duty, reflecting Philadelphia’s shrinking sense of collective responsibility, were mirrored on a local level, too, as manyfamilies immured themselves within the four walls of their homes, ‘and debarred themselves from all communication with the rest of mankind.’ (346) Carey’s Account shudders at the ‘total dissolution of the bonds of society,’[14] while Arthur explains that ‘Terror had exterminated all the sentiments of nature,’ ‘Wives were deserted by husbands,’ children by their parents. (346) Patriotic ties, community ties, familial ties: nation, city, family: all three tiers of the social fabric began to unravel as yellow fever took hold of Philadelphia. Yet Arthur Mervyn, mocked by neighbours for his expertise with a pair of knitting needles, makes it his business to re-knit the beleaguered city and rekindle a sense of collective responsibility.

As Part I progresses, and Arthur’s autobiographical yarn expands, so too does his sense of responsibility, encompassing the ever increasing circles of mother, friends, fellow Philadelphians, and ultimately the foreigner and stranger, Clemenza Lodi. As a child, Arthur’s ‘duty to [his] mother’ (542) leads him to play the role of his father’s ‘monitor;’ once in Philadelphia, his sense of duty towards Welbeck prevents him from leaving town before apprising his patron of Thetford’s treachery. Soon after, concerned for the nephew of his latest benefactor, Mervyn returns to the city in search of the youth, where, like a well-oiled republican machine, he reels off pat the republican concept of civic virtue, concluding that ‘life is a trivial sacrifice in the cause of duty.’ (379) Faced with the terrors of the yellow fever and the social turmoil of Philadelphia, Arthur now decides to offer his services as the governor of the infamous Bush Hill Hospital, reasoning that, ‘A dispassionate and honest zeal in the cause of duty and humanity may be of eminent utility. Am I not endowed with this zeal?’ (389) As public officers flee the town and the ‘province of duty’ (401) has all but shrunk to nothing in the struggle to save oneself, Arthur reanimates William Penn’s founding image of Philadelphia as a philanthropic City of Brotherly Love. Hearing stifled sobs from within a locked room, the earnest youth demands admittance, declaring the sufferer, ‘a brother in calamity, whom it was my duty to succour and cherish to the utmost of my power.’ (398)

Yet when the door does finally open, the scene that follows makes a mockery of Arthur’s good intentions, revealing none other than a furious Welbeck, the swindler and seducer who will soon leave Arthur for dead in the same house, and can’t quite believe that his protégé has managed to track him down. ‘Is there no means of evading your pursuit?’ (404), he demands, and no wonder that he’s eager to avoid Arthur’s fraternal attentions: less of a private detective and more of a public nuisance, Arthur is plagued by obstacles and beset by quixotic blunders as he repeatedly misreads situations, mis-handles rescues, and leaves a trail of devastation in his wake. Arriving at Welbeck’s mansion just in time to bury the murdered corpse of Watson, barging into the brothel to rescue Clemenza only to witness the death of her baby, turning up instead of a long awaited fiancé at the Hadwin’s farmhouse andprecipitating the death of the lovelorn Susan, Arthur is described by Patrick Brancaccio as a ‘meddlesome, self-righteous bungler who comes close to destroying himself and everyone in his path.’[15] Re-enacting time and again his own sudden arrival on the Philadelphia scene, his overnight metamorphosis from ‘a rustic lad into a fine gentleman,’(437) Brown’s benevolent upstart specializes in sudden arrivals and vanishing acts,[16] ‘starting up before’ Watson’s widow ‘as if from the pores of the ground,’ and leaving her ‘in a swoon upon the floor.’ (570-1) Welbeck proves extremely perceptive when he comments upon his protégé’s ‘untimely destiny.’ (406) Arthur’s arrivals are as ‘untimely’ as his own republican principles, and as they accumulate, they appear as comical as they are catastrophic, burlesquing the benevolent ideal which underpinned republican ideology, and was supposed to cement a socially, racially and geographically disparate Union.

The bungled benevolence of this New World Arthurian hero may be amusing to readers, but Arthur Mervyn takes himself very seriously indeed, and if Part I attests to Arthur’s widening sense of public responsibility, Part II follows his quest to win a wider public for his tale. At first, Arthur relates events—and with great reluctance—just to Stevens and his wife, huddled round the fireplace in their home. Fearing for his lodger’s reputation, though, Stevens reflects at the start of Part II that ‘The story which he told to me he must tell to the world;’ (457) the doctor need fear nothing on this score: before long, Mervyn is telling his tale in parlours and drawing rooms across Pennsylvania. He assures an up-state lawyer that ‘I am anxious to publish the truth,’ (583) and true to his word relates that, ‘before the end of my second interview’ with Fanny Maurice and Mrs. Watson, these women were ‘mistresses of every momentous incident of my life, and of the whole chain of my feelings and opinions, in relation to every subject.’ (584) As the garrulous Mervyn admits, ‘Any one who could listen found me willing to talk.’ (590) Replacing Dr. Stevens as narrator, Arthur moves from experienced raconteur to amateur author, putting the finishing touches to his own, emphatically public, history, a ‘written narrative’ that is ready for publication, designed to be read by ‘those who have no previous knowledge’ of the characters involved. (604) Arthur’s acts of benevolence may have landed him his own private property, courtesy of Ascha Fielding, but more crucially still for Arthur’s self-image, they have also earned him a coveted place in the public eye and amass market for the tale he loves to tell.

Read against the backdrop of 1790s Philadelphia, a city bewitched by the ‘arts of gain’[17] but plagued by ‘twisted financial dealings,’[18] Arthur’s determination to play the public-spirited citizen invests him with a puzzling ‘singularity’ that turns out to be a popular topic of discussion in the text. According to Mrs. Wentworth, he possesses a ‘most singular deportment,’ Miss Villars is likewise bewildered by his ‘most singular conduct,’ and even his future wife declares that his ‘language is so singular’ it defies comprehension. Arthur himself remarks that ‘The constitution of my mind is doubtless singular and perverse.’ (555; 519; 527; 297) The pointed repetition of the word ‘singular’ is significant: not only does it draw attention to the unusualness of Arthur’s old-fashioned republican ideals, it connects Arthur’s single-minded benevolence with his burgeoning sense of identity, subtly pinpointing a process of individuation that culminates in chapter sixteen of Part II, with the introduction of Arthur himself as narrator and the start of a narrative told in the first person singular.

For somebody who claims that ‘the road of [his] duty was too plain to be mistaken,’ (535) Arthur seems to take a lot of wrong turns, repeatedly finding himself in awkward corners and under suspicion, beset by diversions and all too easily side-tracked, but nevertheless, in Arthur’s mind, the straight and narrow road of public service form the basis of his self-construction. His perception of his own inviolable ‘bosom,’ a self-reliant ‘centre not to be shaken or removed,’ (512) is founded upon his sense of collective responsibility, and as Arthur’s ‘benevolent activity’ picks up pace in Part II, he grows in confidence and composure, climbing out of his shell and coming into his own. Impressed by the self-determined and single-minded Arthur that emerges in Part II, it is easy for readers to forget the impressionable and disorientated Arthur of Part I, the gullible runaway who goes in search of a surrogate father and eagerly adopts the clothes and deportment that Welbeck desires, imagining life as the stranger’s son-in-law and even trailing him into the bowels of the house to bury a still-warm corpse, following ‘in his foot-steps […] because it was agreeable to him and because I knew not whither else to direct my steps.’ (332) As an adolescent Arthur Mervyn self-consciously strives to outgrow his ‘childlike immaturity,’ and to define both himself and his place in the ‘busy haunts of men,’ (493-4) his reasons for becoming a doctor display most clearly his association of public-service with self-construction, of public-image with self-worth:

‘I now set about carrying my plan of life into effect. I began with ardent zeal and unwearied diligence the career of medical study. […] My mind gladly expanded itself, as it were, for the reception of new ideas. My curiosity grew more eager, in proportion as it was supplied with food, and every day added strength to the conviction that I was no insignificant and worthless being; that I was destined to be something in this scene of existence, and might sometime lay claim to the gratitude and homage of my fellow-men.’ (589)

For Crèvecoeur’s Farmer James, the purchase of a property is what makes a man more than a ‘cipher;’ he avers that a man who has ‘become a freeholder […] is now an American,’ and ‘for the first time in his life, counts for something.’[19] For Arthur Mervyn, however, dispossessed of his patrimonial property and unenamoured with the plough, it is civic service and the stamp of public approval that authenticate his sense of self, investing him with significance and validating his worth.

It is Arthur’s disinterested commitment to Eliza Hadwin’s welfare which leads an astonished Ascha Fielding to exclaim that ‘your character, without doubt, is all your own.’ (599) Ruling out marriage with his ‘dear country girl,’ (590) Arthur is self-consciously renouncing obscurity and the private, ‘conjugal pleasures’ of a life ‘in the woods,’ and is choosing instead a life in the public eye, arguing for ‘the propriety of my engaging in the cares of the world, before I sit down in retirement and ease.’ (498, 497) But this turns out to be another ‘propriety’ that Arthur fails to observe, for a premature retirement from the cares of the world is precisely what he chooses when he falls in love with Ascha Fielding, not only his future wife, but also his surrogate ‘mamma’. One by one, Arthur’s outside interests disappear from sight. Clemenza enters the Stevens household and is not so much as mentioned again, while the doting Eliza is asked to ‘withdraw’ from Arthur’s presence, dismissed from the scene and from the narrative with a decisive ‘farewel.’ (604) The medical vocation which was to secure Mervyn the ‘dignity’ of ‘popular opinion,’ while enabling him to lighten ‘the distresses of [his] neighbours,’ is quietly abandoned, and Arthur’s decision to emigrate anticipates his retirement from America itself. (431) Yet settling down with a wife proves to be the most unsettling of experiences, and in the final chapters of the text, as Arthur turns away from public service and towards the private affairs of his heart, his narrative betrays an unprecedented anxiety.

When Arthur carries the cares of the world upon his shoulders, he sees ‘nothing in the world before [him] but sunshine and prosperity;’ (512) when his only care is for himself, he begins to show signs of a troubled and fractured identity. Gone are the brisk and purposeful walks along the road of duty, to the homes of Hadwin, Curling and Villars; instead he sleepwalks ‘without design’ through the city streets, (628) and roams aimlessly and feverishly through a savage landscape:

I left this spot and wandered upward through embarrassed and obscure paths, starting forward or checking my pace, according as my wayward meditations governed me. Shall I describe my thoughts?—Impossible! It was certainly a temporary loss of reason; nothing less than madness could lead me into such devious tracts, drag me down to so hopeless, helpless, panickful a depth, and drag me down so suddenly; lay waste, as at a signal, all my flourishing structures, and reduce them in a moment to a scene of confusion and horror. …

I rent a passage through the thicket, and struggled upward till I reached the edge of a considerable precipice; I laid me down at my length upon the rock, whose cold and hard surface I pressed with my bared and throbbing breast. I leaned over the edge; fixed my eyes upon the water and wept—plentifully; but why?

May this be my heart’s last beat, if I can tell why. (633)

Distinctions between topographical and psychological landscapes dissolve as Mervyn loses both his way and his mind in the wilderness of rural Pennsylvania. In this climactic scene, Arthur has exchanged his place in the public eye for ‘obscure paths’ and ‘devious tracts;’ his ‘steadfast’ purposes (512) have been supplanted by ‘wayward meditations;’ dragged down to ‘so hopeless, helpless, panickful a depth,’ he can only watch in dismay as the ‘flourishing structures’ of his promising career in philanthropy are pulled down before his eyes. Arthur had ‘struggled upward’ from poverty and rural obscurity to earn himself esteem and reputation in the public eye; he had reached the pinnacle of personal fulfilment and public approbation, but as is so often the case in American fiction of this era, the pinnacle is also a precipice. On the brink of proposing to Ascha Fielding, Arthur also teeters on the edge of self-possession and self-dissolution; leaning ‘over the edge’ of the precipice he is reassured by the ‘cold and hard surface’ of the stone but is simultaneously transfixed by the flowing water far below. Even as he cleaves to the rock-solid reality of the age-old stone, Arthur sees his tears engulfed by water: holding fast to a physical certainty only serves to emphasise his own fragility and the frightening uncertainty of his future. In a violent and macabre nightmare, the somnambulistic Arthur experiences once again the shattering of his increasingly brittle self-image. In reality, the lovesick Arthur knocks on Ascha’s door in the dead of night, receives no reply, and sleepwalks back to Stevens’ house. In his dream, however, Arthur enters into Ascha’s house only to be confronted by her former husband and fatally injured by a knife-wound to the heart. Going indoors turns out to be a deadly mistake, for Ascha’s home is where the heart is stabbed, and Arthur discovers that his ‘bosom’ is no longer the unshakeable centre he once believed it to be.

The ‘temporary loss of reason’ which Arthur experiences before proposing marriage to Ascha is followed by a more thorough-going loss of independent identity once she has agreed to the union. Arthur admits that he is ‘wax in her hand,’ and has ‘scarcely a separate or independent existence’ from his ‘mamma,’(620) always assuming the ‘form’ that she desires. Union with Ascha signals both a loss of independence and a loss of certainty for Arthur, who suddenly finds himself beset with ‘unworthy terrors’ and ‘ominous misgiving[s].’ (636) While an earlier Arthur could place unbounded confidence in himself and his virtue, the Mervyn who narrates the closing chapters knows ‘not where to place confidence.’ (636) During the course of the narrative, the reader’s faith in Arthur Mervyn is repeatedly undermined as contradictions and occlusions in his story emerge; even Dr Stevens has moments of wavering faith in his protégé, but when Arthur Mervyn loses faith in Arthur Mervyn, both narrator and his narrative fall apart.

Envisaging his marital ‘household’ in the closing paragraphs of the book, Arthur explains that ‘Fidelity and skill and pure morals, should be sought out, and enticed, by generous recompenses, into our domestic service.’ (637) Nowhere do we see more clearly histransformation from public benefactor to private homeowner. Arthur’s outward-looking ideals of ‘civic virtue’ have been exchanged for the individualistic ideals of furthering one’s own ‘private interests,’[20] and he is left to wax lyrical on the importance of hiring honest household staff. As I have suggested, however, crossing the boundary from public servant to private master proves a dangerous undertaking for Arthur Mervyn. Private property threatens to be just as perilous as it was on that first fateful night in the city, and going home can dislocate one’s self.

University College, London


[1] See Cathy Davidson’s Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 240, for an eloquent—and humorous—summation of contradictory reader responses to Arthur Mervyn.

[2] ‘Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic’, in Essays, Literary, Moral, and Philosophical (Philadelphia: Thomas and Samuel F. Bradford, 1798), 10-11.

[3] Joyce Appleby, Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790’s (New York and London: New York University Press, 1984), 14-15.

[4] See Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 228-231; 265-288, for Kerber’s discussion of the ‘Republican Mother.’ See also Jan Lewis, ‘The Republican Wife: Virtue and Seduction in the Early Republic’, William and Mary Quarterly, 44:4 (October, 1987), 689-721.

[5] Charles Brockden Brown, Arthur Mervyn; Or Memoirs of the Year 1793, in Three Gothic Novels (New York: Library of America, 1998), 551. Hereafter referred to in parentheses in the text.

[6] Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds, ‘Private Property: Charles Brockden Brown’s Economics of Virtue’, Studies in the Humanities, 18:2 (1991), 168; 170.

[7] See Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 76-79, for an analysis of the economic problems faced by many Americans at this time.

[8] Charles Brockden Brown, The Rhapsodist and Other Uncollected Writings, ed. by Harry R. Warfel (New York: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1943), 95; 29.

[9] Rush, 14.

[10] ‘The Dangers of American Liberty’, American Political writing During the Founding Era, ed. by Charles S. Hyneman and Donald S. Lutz, 2 vols (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1983), II, 1313.

[11] Sally Sayward Barrell Keating Wood, Dorval; Or, The Speculator (Portsmouth: Ledger Press, 1801), 16.

[12] Mathew Carey, A Short Account of the Malignant Fever Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1794; 4th edn), 58.

[13] Carey, 20.

[14] Carey, 23.

[15] Patrick Brancaccio, ‘Studied Ambiguities: Arthur Mervyn and the Problem of the Unreliable Narrator,’ American Literature, 42 (March 1970), 22.

[16] As for Arthur’s vanishing acts, they are just as ill-timed: leaving home in the middle of the night, he leaves the way clear for his step-mother to fleece his father of the family farm; he deserts the Hadwins without warning in the middle of the fever epidemic, and disappears from the Stevens’ house at precisely the time when he is most required to prove his innocence. Having appeared before Widow Watson, he vanishes ‘with the same celerity’ (AM, 571), and embodies a frightening mobility, a now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t kind of mentality that typified the volatility of the 1790s.

[17] Elihu Hubbard Smith, quoted in Edwin G. Burrows & Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York to 1898 (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 377.

[18] Tompkins, 73.

[19] J. Hector St John De Crevecoeur, Letters From an American Farmer (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 58.

[20] Appleby, 14.