American Literary History 15.2 (2003) 213-247
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Arthur Mervyn's Medical Repository and the Early Republic's Knowledge Industries
Charles Brockden Brown was afraid of the dark. He confesses this fear, describing it as a "disease" from which he has suffered since childhood, and comparing it to the terror occasioned by recent and recurring yellow fever epidemics, in an October 1796 letter from New York City, where he was living with friends, to his brother James in Philadelphia. Here, a year and a half before serialization would begin on his fever novel Arthur Mervyn, orMemoirs of the Year 1793 (1799-1800), 1 Brown reassures his brother that New York's epidemic season has passed, then expounds on the topic of sensory perception in a way that anticipates the novel's preoccupations: "I can not but admire the exaggerations of rumor, and the multiplying and enlarging efficacy ofdistance," he writes. "Physical objects... vanish altogether as we go farther from them. Not so the yellow fever and the like imaginary spectacles which... grow... in proportion to their actual distance from us" (qtd. in Clark 156). Fear of thefever, like fear of the dark, derives from the imagination's compensation for what cannot be seen: "Plague operates by invisibleagents; and we know not in what quarter it is about to attack us"(156). Brown's visualization of rumor (something one hears) as an "imaginary spectacle" (something one thinks one sees) anticipates Arthur Mervyn's description of fever rumors that "swell" to fill a Quaker farmhouse (346). Being caught up in a fever rumor is like being trapped in the dark; in either case, imagining yourself assailed by what you cannot see is as terrifying as an actual attack. This concern not only with disease but with the effects of illicit or uncontrolled information about it reappears in Brown's response two years later to New York's epidemic of 1798, his roommate [End Page 213] Elihu Hubbard Smith dying of the fever in the next room: "My heart sickens at the perpetual recital" of fever stories, Brown writes, as he longs to be "where the faintest blast of rumor may not reach me" (qtd. in Warfel 122).
The cumulative effect of these separate descriptions of rumor (reasoned, fictional, and genuinely anguished) is the suggestion that words and imagination—the very stuff of fiction—can have physical effects and even do bodily damage, particularly, it seems, when fever is the subject, and particularly when someone is literally or metaphorically in the dark. The implied conflation of voice and vision—rumors you can see, stories that expand in size—doesn't necessarily suggest a specific theory or hierarchy of the senses; though the pattern culminates nicely in the final image of a body made sick by a "blast of rumor," the way a blast of wind can knock over a tree, I don't intend to argue for a position that pits seeing against hearing in Brown's fiction. More important is the idea that the stories one hears or the scenes one imagines can cloud what one sees—can affect literal and metaphoric views—an idea that runs consistently through Brown's fever writing. In his Monthly Magazine and American Review in 1799, for example, we find anonymous letters, purportedly from "a Gentleman in Philadelphia to his Friend in England," which lament that "Numerous and stubborn facts" about the fever, "drawn from various parts of the United States," are being blocked from public view by "invented... [t]ales, most absurd": "[S]o blinded by prejudice or interest are some minds," the gentleman writes, "that having once shut their eyes, they obstinately determine not to re-admit the light, lest their fortunes might suffer, or the reputation of a favorite city be impaired" ("Extract" 325).
In all of these representations of rumor and sight, Brown not only articulates a materialist theory of language and storytelling (in which words matter because they act like and even affect matter) but also confronts a key crisis of literary authorship and...