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  • Charles Brockden Brown’s Lazaretto Chronotope SeriesSecret History and “The Man at Home”
  • Joseph J. Letter (bio)

My son, there’s nothing insignificant in this whole world. But first and foremost is, among all earthly things, the time and place.

—Friedrich Schiller, Wallenstein 2.I, 10–12

In the spring of 1798, just months before publishing six novels in less than three years, Charles Brockden Brown wrote “The Man at Home,” a series of thirteen sketches that appeared in the Weekly Magazine. For the most part, “The Man at Home” has been dismissed as a minor and fragmentary work, a very loosely structured series of reflections on debt and property, where Brown first developed plotlines that later would be elaborated in the novels. But I believe the text holds much greater significance for understanding how Brown used serial publication as a performative vehicle. In effect, Brown uses the series to create unity through repetition and ultimately suggests a program of resistance to the condition of modern seriality. Through a literary motif that I will refer to as the “lazaretto chronotope series,” Brown articulates an alternate space-time, one that gradually reveals links between the present and past. In other words, “The Man at Home” applies a theory of historical fiction that Brown would later distinguish as “romance,” and equally important, suggests a relation between writer and reader that demands imaginative engagement as a prelude to collective action.

In what follows, I will explore the three key terms, lazaretto-chronotope-series, as a means of defining Brown’s authorial project in “The Man at Home” and its unrealized polemical potential. First, as a literary motif, the lazaretto suggests an “othered” space that exists both within and outside the constraints of society.1 In the temporal sense, the lazaretto articulates with the present in a way that offers a critical perspective on the conflict [End Page 711] between a communal republican ideal and emergent liberal individualism in the new US nation. Second, I argue that the lazaretto is best understood as a Bahktinian chronotope, a concrete literary expression of a new historical epoch. As M. M. Bakhtin notes, in the chronotope “spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole” (84); furthermore, literary chronotopes are “the primary means for materializing time in space. … It can be said without qualification that to them belongs the meaning that shapes narrative” (250). Brown’s choices of “spatial and temporal indicators” in “The Man at Home” offer a fascinating and complex example of how he constructed his own position as author through hidden historical allusions. Finally, in his use of the series, both as a literary form and in its theoretical sense, Brown subverts the very “homogeneous empty time” that Benedict Anderson treats as a precondition for the “imagined community” of the nation. Although “The Man at Home” is often ignored in favor of the novels, the text reveals an approach to historical writing that Brown followed throughout his career, and it serves as a point of origin for the plots of both Ormond and Arthur Mervyn. Its concealed allusive structure, especially in relation to time and place, stresses the significance of historical setting and also of secrecy, both important elements in the early US novel.

“The Man at Home” is set in the present, Philadelphia in 1798, and is written from the perspective of a retired merchant who has lost his life’s savings after securing a failed loan for an old business partner. Faced with the reality of losing all his property or going to debtors’ prison, the narrator decides to conceal himself in a boardinghouse room run by his washerwoman, Kate. In the room—which, of course, is not his true “home”—the narrator ruminates on his condition, occupying his time by writing during the period of self-imposed exile from society. What follows seems like a series of random observations of the room, followed by various essayistic reflections and historical sketches about the room’s previous tenants. The room, then, functions as a present site or narrative hub for the series, despite its particularly barren, “homogeneous,” and “empty” appearance. What appears to be just another boardinghouse room...


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pp. 711-735
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