Brockden Brown: Criticism of American Society Through Fiction Writing

With Arthur Mervyn, or Memoirs of the Year 1793, Charles Brockden Brown gives America one of its first gothic novels, but that’s not all Brown gives us. Brown also gave us another look at America through fiction. Brown gives us a stark contrast between the good, opportunity-filled Philadelphia that Benjamin Franklin portrays in his Autobiography and the gritty not-so-good Philadelphia where you never know people’s true intentions. Arthur Mervyn’s conflict of country versus city is really a conflict of good versus evil.

Both Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Mervyn arrived in Philadelphia poor and looking for work, having left their homes due to unfavorable reasons. Franklin, however, was fortunate in his apprenticeships at various print shops in Philly, even though he quit, unsatisfied with the jobs. Still, Franklin’s is a story of the ‘American Dream’: being recognized for hard work and taken under the governor’s wing to be set up for his own successful business. Mervyn’s story, however, takes a completely different path. Instead of being taken under the tutelage of an influential person, such as the governor, Mervyn is taken under the patronage of rich merchant, Mr. Welbeck, later to be revealed as a conman and thief and soon finds himself aiding in the burial of a dead body and escape of his benefactor.

In Mervyn, Brown uses the contrast between city and country to illustrate the difference between good and evil. Philadelphia is described to the reader as a city of pestilence and depravity in contrast with the country-side living of Chester County, where Arthur Mervyn was born to a Quaker family. The rural outskirts of Philadelphia, as a place where work was steady and the people innocent and unassuming draws a stark contrast to the grit of Philadelphia. The plague, the deception and lies are metaphors for the corruption—the evil that is the city. Mervyn’s weakened state due to the plague is a metaphor for his weakened soul after having been conned, stripped of his clothing and involved in the murder of a man—all while in Philadelphia. The naivety, the trust are metaphors for the country.

Early on in Mervyn, Dr. Stevens, who finds Arthur Mervyn in a sickly state says “He was unqualified, by his education, for any liberal profession. His poverty was likewise an insuperable impediment. He could afford to spend no time in the acquisition of a trade. He must labour, not for future emolument, but for immediate subsistence.” Clearly, Brown takes issue with the widespread notion that, in America, especially Philadelphia, it was easy to be a self-made man, as Ben Franklin had portrayed of himself. When you are poor, seeking employment and have no way to take care of yourself, your immediate need of eating comes first pursuing the American dream of being successful, learning a trade, oftentimes, falls to the wayside.

In Brown’s 1793 Philadelphia, people are manipulative, calculating and deceitful to those newly arriving to Philadelphia and trusting the wrong person can be dangerous and lead to sickness of the soul and body. The city’s infestation, its contagion was so strong that it spread to the country in the form of plague and in the form of deception. Mervyn, traveling to the city to find work is manipulated and conned. Brown is clearly criticizing the ‘land of opportunity’, showing that the opportunities that people take may come at another person’s peril.

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