Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) was born into a Quaker merchant family in Philadelphia at the beginning of the revolutionary age, when that city was the largest and wealthiest hub of British and global commerce in North America. Born on January 17, 1771, to Elijah Brown and Mary Armitt, both sides of Brown’s family were early Quaker settlers in Pennsylvania. Both paternal grandparents were both born in Chester County (southeastern Pennsylvania) in the early eighteenth century, and his great grandfather, William Brown (1682-1716) was one of the original Quaker founders of Nottingham, Pennsylvania. His maternal grandparents lived in Philadelphia, where maternal grandfather Joseph Armitt (b. 1747) was a prominent joiner and furniture maker whose work now resides in museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Brown's father, Elijah Brown, Sr. (1740-1810), was a land conveyancer, land broker, and merchant. Elijah’s career was uneven, possibly involving a bankruptcy in the early 1780s; but the family, partly thanks to the Armitts, was generally economically secure. Nevertheless, the various “professions” attached to Elijah’s name in city directories evidence his fluctuating income and social standing: in 1785, he is listed as “conveyance”; by 1795 he is a “land broker”; by 1798 he is identified as “gentleman”; and in 1802 he becomes “merchant.”
The fourth of six siblings who survived into adulthood, Charles Brockden Brown had three older brothers (Joseph, James, and Armitt), a younger sister (Elizabeth), and a younger brother (Elijah, Jr.). The two eldest brothers began investing in the period's carrying trade and established a mercantile firm sometime in the 1780s, and carried the business to Edenton, North Carolina early in 1790. Joseph eventually married into the prosperous Brownrigg family of Bertie County, North Carolina, becoming the owner of a large plantation, Point Comfort, located on the Chowan River. James returned to Philadelphia and oversaw the mercantile firm, James Brown & Co., which was the primary locus of the siblings’ import-export interests from the late 1790s to the firm’s dissolution. By 1808 the firm may have become insolvent, and . James moved to England at some point in 1808-1809.1 While the central partners in the firm were Armitt, James and Elijah, Jr., Brown's letters indicate that, from 1801 until his death, Charles was likewise involved in the business and its travails. Indeed, the Brown brothers left a paper trail of litigation revealing their fiscal precariousness in the years leading up to, and following, the War of 1812.2 For the most accurate account of Brown family history to date, including four generations of Brown’s wife, Elizabeth Linn’s family, consult the "Genealogies of the Brown and Linn Families" in the project's volume 1, Letters and Early Epistolary Writings (919-28).
Born at the beginning of the 1770s, Brown’s life and literary career took shape within the rapidly changing culture of the revolutionary age. As numerous biographers have noted, Brown’s early life and development are shaped on all levels by the conflicts and transformations of the late Enlightenment and American Revolution, just as his mature years and literary career take shape in the context of the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars, all of which had direct and often dramatic implications and consequences for Philadelphia and the early U.S. republic.3 Brown experienced the conflict of the American Revolution on an intimate level, for example, when his father was arrested and interned as one of a larger group of Philadelphia Quaker men during the winter of 1777-1778, during the American Revolution, because, as a Quaker, he would not swear an oath of allegiance.4
Brown was shaped by the cultural and intellectual Enlightenment as early as his education at the Friends Latin School (1781-1786), where he became familiar with classical and modern literatures, developed an early interest in history and belles-lettres, and formed his earliest friendships with classmates John Davidson, Joseph Bringhurst, Jr., Thomas Pym Cope, Timothy Paxson, Zachariah Poulson, Walter Franklin, and others who figure significantly in the correspondence of the early and mid 1790s. This group of young professionals founded a literary society, initially called the Belles Lettres Society during their school years, and subsequently The Society for the Attainment of Useful Knowledge through the early 1790s, which served as an important early locus for Brown’s participation in the period’s republic of letters.5
Brown’s family intended for Charles to become an attorney, likely in order to facilitate the family’s mercantile activities in the carrying trade, which involved significant litigation. Quakers in this era did not attend universities, as higher education in the early U.S. and England was then dominated by non-Quaker protestant denominational groups, and Brown consequently followed his years at the Friends Latin School with a law apprenticeship (from 1787 to about 1793) under prominent Philadelphia attorney Alexander Wilcocks. Some of Brown’s former classmates and closest early friends, especially William Wood Wilkins, were also law apprentices, and Brown became well versed in legal culture. By the early 1790s, however, it was clear that Brown’s heart was not in his legal training and that he aspired to a career as a writer. Letters from the early 1790s, especially those to Wilkins, with whom Brown shared lodgings in 1791-1792 and who was achieving considerable success as a young attorney by 1792-1793, reveal Brown’s concerns about rejecting his family’s wishes and abandoning the career path for which his family had hoped. Along with his closest associates of this period, Wilkins and Bringhurst, Brown published poetry and essays in Philadelphia periodicals as early as 1788-1789. The 1791-1793 letters to Bringhurst and Wilkins, as well as the early epistolary fictions included here, provide ample evidence that Brown was increasingly focused on becoming a writer during the years 1790-1793 and, indeed, the letters from these years often serve as a medium for experimentation with fictional narrative, creating personas who embark on journeys that Brown never took (for example, to Edinburgh and Ferney) and engage in experiences that are not Brown’s own. Indeed, the early letters to Bringhurst and Wilkins likewise contain the earliest formulations of Brown's theory of romance-writing as conjectural history. Such narrative experiments constitute a unique feature of Brown’s correspondence.
By 1793-1795, new friendships began to lead Brown toward the New York intellectual and social milieu in which his literary career was launched. Between 1790 and 1793 Brown met and became increasingly close with several new acquaintances and friends from New York, most notably Elihu Hubbard Smith, a young physician originally from Connecticut who in 1790-1791 had studied medicine in Philadelphia with Benjamin Rush, and William Dunlap, a painter, playwright, and theatre manager who traveled to Philadelphia and stayed with Brown as a New York delegate to abolition society conventions. By the mid-1790s Brown had openly abandoned his law apprenticeship and began regular visits with Dunlap and Smith in New York.
As he spent more time with Smith and Dunlap, and in the New York social and intellectual circles in which they participated, the three friends bonded in terms of their common interests in relatively radical strains of Enlightenment intellectual life, from Condorcet and Volney to Godwin, Wollstonecraft and related British writers who played a crucial progressive role in the Anglophone revolution debates of the early 1790s, and in British radical writing throughout the decade. Smith and Dunlap were both active, along with many of Brown’s closest male associates in New York, in the Friendly Club, another society that united an active group of young professionals with intellectual aspirations.6 With other members of the Friendly Club, for example, Smith founded the Medical Repository, the earliest U.S. medical periodical.7
Even within the Friendly Club group, however, Brown, Smith, and Dunlap formed a distinct and especially close trio. All three shared a basic skepticism towards theism and religious institutions, and developed their common interest in the London-based “Woldwinite” (Wollstonecraftian-Godwinian) writers, especially political philosopher and novelist William Godwin, revolutionary feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, playwright Thomas Holcroft, and novelist Robert Bage, as well as poet and scientist Erasmus Darwin and the activities of the Lunar Society in the British midlands. Smith and Dunlap corresponded with Godwin, Holcroft, and Darwin, and the group’s affinities with these British cultural and intellectual networks were heightened by their friendship with British-born actor Thomas Cooper, the former ward of William Godwin, who arrived in the U.S. in the late 1790s and often worked with Dunlap.
It was in this context, after moving to New York in 1796-1797, that Brown’s literary career commenced in earnest. Brown had initiated numerous never-completed narrative experiments throughout the early and mid 1790s, but as of late 1797, while moving back and forth between Philadelphia and New York, where he shared lodgings with Smith and legal scholar William Johnson, he began to produce and bring to publication the novels and other writings for which he is best known today. Encouraged and aided by Smith in particular, Brown published the first sections of his Wollstonecraftian dialogue Alcuin in March and April 1798, and followed this initial book publication with a series of novels that were all begun in 1797 and 1798 before appearing in rapid succession from 1798 through fall 1800. Brown’s first novel Sky-Walk (completed March 1798) was set in pages before being lost in the aftermath of a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia; and Wieland, the first novel to reach publication, appeared in New York in September 1798, only days before Elihu Hubbard Smith died in a New York yellow fever epidemic in late September. The following months saw the publications of his novels Ormond (January 1799), Arthur Mervyn (May 1799), Edgar Huntly (August or September 1799), Arthur Mervyn, Second Part (September or October 1800), and the serialized Stephen Calvert (June 1799-June 1800). As these novels appeared, Brown began work in 1799 as editor of the New York Monthly Magazine and American Review, a periodical founded by a collaborative group of New York Friendly Club associates. In addition to the novels, Brown published essays, reviews, and short fiction as part of this editorial work.8
In December 1800, Brown returned to Philadelphia for a visit and remained in the city past the date of his intended return before gradually taking up residence in Philadelphia once again. The circumstances of this apparently unplanned return to his native city are not entirely clear, but the letters suggest that at least one reason Brown stayed in Philadelphia instead of returning to New York was the presence of Elizabeth Linn, a young woman he had met in New York but who was now living in Philadelphia for an extended stay with her brother John Blair Linn, another former associate of Brown’s from New York. Linn was the eldest daughter of the Reverend William Linn, a prominent Presbyterian minister and educator, and her brother John Blair, also a clergyman, had recently arrived in Philadelphia to take up ministerial duties at the city’s First Presbyterian Church. The large group of courtship letters that Brown wrote to Linn between December 1800 and April 1801 form a distinct subgroup within his larger correspondence.
From 1801 to 1804, Brown’s return to Philadelphia took his literary career and life in new directions. While courting Elizabeth Linn in 1801, Brown began working more regularly with the family’s merchant firm and published two epistolary novels: Clara Howard (April 1801) and Jane Talbot (December 1801). In January and March 1803, Brown published two political pamphlets concerning economic restrictions after Spain revoked the United States’ right of deposit in New Orleans. Legal obstructions to trade along the Mississippi River were of immediate concern for the Brown family’s shipping investments.9 In October 1803, working with Philadelphia printer-publisher Joseph Conrad, Brown founded a new periodical, The Literary Magazine and American Register, which he would edit until 1807. In November of 1804 Brown and Elizabeth Linn were married in Philadelphia by Elizabeth’s father William Linn. Brown, like his older brothers, married a non-Quaker and was subsequently reprimanded or “disowned” by the Philadelphia meeting for marrying outside the Society of Friends.
From 1805 to his death in 1810, Brown began raising a family and pursued his literary career primarily as editor of two major periodicals. While overseeing the final years of the Literary Magazine, likely during 1805-1806, Brown drafted the lengthy and experimental historical fiction that was mostly published in the posthumous Dunlap biographical miscellany (1815) and which has become known as the Historical Sketches. Beginning in 1807, again in collaboration with publisher John Conrad, Brown founded a new periodical, The American Register, and contributed to it a lengthy historical narrative of Atlantic geopolitics in the Napoleonic era, “The Annals of Europe and America.” Brown continued to edit The American Register until he was incapacitated by tuberculosis in late 1809 and died in February 1810. During his later years, Brown’s letters suggest that his social life was primarily organized around close associations with members of the Linn family and with professional and literary associates in Philadelphia and New York. At his death in 1810, Brown left behind, among other papers, the manuscript for at least one volume of a planned two-volume A Complete System of Geography; the text was extravagantly praised by nineteenth-century writers and editors who saw the manuscript, but is now lost.
This biography is adapted from Volume 1 of the Collected Writings of Charles Brockden Brown: Barnard, Philip, Elizabeth Hewitt, and Mark Kamrath, eds. Letters and Early Epistolary Writings. Collected Writings of Charles Brockden Brown Vol. 1. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2013.
- James’ name disappears from Philadelphia street directories after 1809, so he likely moved to London sometimes between 1808 and 1809. Although we do not know when James died, we do know that in 1833 he is alive and living in Snaresbrook, then a northern suburb of London, because the painter Charles Robert Leslie records for Dunlap’s biographical sketch that “I saw this gentleman [“Mr. James Brown, the brother of Charles Brockden Brown”] in good health on the 18th of September, 1833.” See William Dunlap, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Design (1918), 3:4. The case Barton v. Baker (Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, 1815. 1 Serg. & R. 334, 7 Am. Dec. B20) reveals that notes on James Brown & Co. were being drawn in June 1808 after the firm was insolvent.
- As of 2015, Work for the Collected Writings edition, beginning with the Letters, has turned up a total of thirty-five lawsuits involving the Brown brothers mercantile firm. Information about these lawsuits will eventually be included on this project website.
- Modern and contemporary biographical discussions of Brown include Harry R. Warfel, Charles Brockden Brown: American Gothic Novelist (1949); David Lee Clark, Charles Brockden Brown: Pioneer Voice of America (1952); Steven Watts, The Romance of Real Life: Charles Brockden Brown and the Origins of American Culture (1994); and Peter Kafer, Charles Brockden Brown’s Revolution and the Birth of American Gothic (2004).
- Kafer, Charles Brockden Brown’s Revolution (2004), 42.
- Warfel, Charles Brockden Brown (1949), 30-35; Clark, Charles Brockden Brown (42-49).
- See Bryan Waterman, Republic of Intellect (2007).
- Alan Axelrod, Charles Brockden Brown: An American Tale. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983. 126
- The project's "Primary Bibliography" provides complete references for all of Brown’s known publications.
- Brown family interests in New Orleans shipping are attested in thirty New Orleans City and County Court cases in 1805-1807 involving Elijah Brown, Jr., Armitt Brown, and James Brown and Co.