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  • Sleep-Walking Out of the Revolution: Brown’s Edgar Huntly
  • Paul Downes (bio)

Accounts of American political culture in the 1790s often sound like descriptions of Charles Brockden Brown’s fiction. John R. Howe writes of the “distorted” debates of the period, “characterized by heated exaggeration and haunted by conspiratorial fantasy,” and Richard Buel describes a “mood of grim foreboding” that hung over the country throughout the decade on account of the “specter[s]” of “great secrecy” frequently conjured up by wary politicians. Given this climate, Brown’s reputation as a master of gothic suspense seems more like an achievement of realism. 1

But Brown’s work has proved intriguingly resistant to definitive accounts of its political allegiances. 2 In the 1950s Richard Chase chose to emphasize Brown’s attraction to the “radical spirit” of his day, while Leslie Fiedler found in Edgar Huntly a transformation of the European gothic’s antiaristocratic impulses into a condemnation of the “irrationality of the id,” a condemnation which, Fiedler argued, was “conservative at its deepest level of implication.” 3 This dichotomy persists in current criticism: for example, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg makes a case for the presence of a progressive critique of the self-divided, Euro-American, colonial male in Edgar Huntly, while Pamela Clemit proposes that Brown’s novels be read as part of a “conservative backlash against revolutionary ideas” in late eighteenth-century America. 4 Not surprisingly then, Jay Fliegelman ends a recent introduction to Brown’s work by asserting that in Brown’s fiction we find “a mix of radical and reactionary sentiments” (x–xlii). 5 [End Page 413]

The recognition of this “mix” suggests that Brown’s work might be used to question persistent polarizations and to help construct a new vocabulary for assessing postrevolutionary political culture. Such a new vocabulary has recently emerged out of a series of challenges to dominant liberal interpretations of the French Revolution. 6 This work analyzes the emergence of democratic forms of society not by reconstructing the will and initiative of a revolutionary class, but by focusing on what Claude Lefort calls “the ambiguities of the democratic revolution” (Democracy, 14). Instead of simply defending revolutionary ideology against reactionary historiography, these “post-Marxist” investigations distance themselves from the assertions of popular unity that were fundamental to revolutionary rhetoric and argue that an alternative theory of democracy should be read out of the correspondence between this rhetoric and the ubiquitous revolutionary rhetoric of suspicion. For example, by suggesting that French revolutionaries put their faith in “a kind of spontaneous equivalence between the values of revolutionary consciousness, the nation that embodied those values, and the individual charged with implementing or defending them,” (29) François Furet directs our attention away from the re-assertion of those values and towards an analysis of the mystique of that spontaneity. It is through an attempt to specify rather than deny the singularity of the Revolution’s illusions and ambiguities that post-Marxist theories of democracy seek to politicize its historical recovery.

Although productive tensions have enlivened recent work on the corresponding period in American history, the critique of liberal-Marxist historiography on this side of the Atlantic has yet to engage the most cogent arguments of those working on the French Revolution. 7 In what follows, I want to suggest that such an engagement might begin by looking at the fiction of Charles Brockden Brown. The attention that recent political philosophy pays to the paradoxes, incoherences, and divisions at work in the politics of the revolutionary period finds a progenitor in the striking preoccupations of Brown’s 1799 novel, Edgar Huntly. Edgar Huntly narrates the process whereby a young American in the sway of an “ungovernable” curiosity comes to substitute a capitulation to the wisdom of a charismatic authoritarian for a “lawless” commitment to individualized justice. 8 By dramatizing the continuities between a sentimental radicalism and an autocratic conservatism, the novel contributes to a critical reading of antagonistic politics in the new constitutional democracy. More significantly, however, the traces of an alternative democratic theory, one that met resistance on both sides of the political terrain of the 1790s, can be read out of the play of Edgar Huntly’s restless...

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pp. 413-431
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