- A “Spirit of Mistaken Benevolence”Civilizing the Savage in Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly
The eponymous character of Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker (1799) approaches the tree at which his friend Waldegrave died only to realize someone else is there, digging: “Something like flannel was wrapt round his waist and covered his lower limbs. The rest of his frame was naked. … A figure, robust and strange, and half naked, to be thus employed, at this hour and place, was calculated to rouse up my whole soul. His occupation was mysterious and obscure” (10). The “mysterious” figure is the sleepwalking Clithero Edny, a recent “emigrant from Ireland” and the “only foreigner” in Huntly’s neighborhood (14). Scholars have long sought to explain Clithero’s function in the text and, until the publication of Jared Gardner’s “Alien Nation,” they most often viewed Clithero as a gothic double in Edgar’s bildungsroman.1 Gardner’s essay challenges prior scholarship, arguing that Brown’s novel “has less to do with questions of what it means to be civilized than … what it means to be American” (Master Plots 53). For Gardner, the Irish Clithero eventually occupies the same space as the abject Indian, while Edgar re-adapts to American society. Most scholars publishing in the wake of Gardner’s essay also read Clithero solely in an American sociopolitical context, and consequently they place Clithero among either Indians or whites.2 By contrast, I argue that Clithero is an Irish savage in his home country before he comes to America, thereby remapping race thinking in the text.3 Edgar tries but fails to civilize the Irish savage Clithero in an attempt to demonstrate American exceptionalism’s triumph over English imperialism as represented by Mrs. Euphemia Lorimer.4 Ultimately, Brown’s novel makes the transatlantic political claim that the savage is biologically fixed in type and therefore that all nonwhite “savages” must be either imprisoned or killed. [End Page 415]
clithero in context
The information Clithero gives about his early life offers a window into the sociopolitical situation of the Irish as colonial subjects of England. Clithero, “a landless native Irish boy” (Smith-Rosenberg 488), says that his parents, “the better sort of peasants,” provided him with only the “rudiments of knowledge”; the owner of their property “resided wholly in the metropolis, and consigned the management of his estates to his stewards and retainers” (Brown, Edgar Huntly 37). Mrs. Lorimer, the woman who eventually takes over her husband’s lands, also owns several properties. It would be easy to dismiss Clithero’s description as a contemporary view of social differences between the landed gentry and peasant class of Ireland—but in fact, it implicates Anglo-Irish colonial conflict, not domestic class conflict; Clithero’s situation arises from a long history of English imperialism.
The English began dominating and denigrating the Irish around 1169–70, when, as Julia Wright notes, “[t]he Norman-English first invaded Ireland … with the sanction of the Pope” (xxiv). Intimations of Irish savagery appeared in literature as early as 1189, with the publication of Giraldus Cambrensis’s The History of the Conquest of Ireland (Expugnatio Hibernica). Cambrensis, a medieval clergyman and royal clerk and chaplain to King Henry II of England, writes, “As this people are easily moved to rebel, and are as light-minded as they are light of foot, when they have been subjugated and reduced to submission, they will have to be ruled with great discretion” (323).5 While the likes of Edmund Spenser and Robert Davies espoused similar views during the sixteenth century, Queen Elizabeth I “fought with local rulers in Tyrone, Cork, and Kerry, and Anglo-Irish relations were still largely understood feudally, in terms of [Irish] aristocrats who both owed fealty to the queen and commanded those who lived under their protection” (Wright xxv). Oliver Cromwell drastically changed the entire sociopolitical landscape of Ireland when he invaded in 1649: “Cromwell invaded Ireland with a large military force in order to establish Protestantism coercively as the religion of the land and to colonize the country with English landholders” (Wright xxv). As Robbie McVeigh and Bill Rolston...