The final assignment for this course is an 8-10 page (double-spaced) paper, as indicated on the course syllabus. As also indicated in the syllabus, it will count for 40 percent of your final grade and is due by the day of our last class meeting (December 8). It should be printed out and turned in during our class that day.
The paper will be based on our last major reading in the course, a novel published in 1798 by Charles Brockden Brown: Wieland; or, The Transformation: An American Tale. Brown, born into a Philadelphia Quaker family in 1771 and trained for the law, wrote a series of seven novels in quick succession between 1797 and 1802. Several of the books explore aberrant states of mind or feeling and show a fascination with scientific and medical themes. All of them are set in the United States across the period from before to just after the Revolution, but they also pay attention to the new nation’s Transatlantic ties.
In various ways, they also show a pervasive and important concern with point-of-view as a psychological fact and a literary device. In the case of Wieland, we thus learn of a mass murder through a narrative told by the murderer’s sister (who at one point was another of his intended victims). Brown’s interest in point-of-view was intensely personal, but it accorded well with his period’s rising interest in subjective states of feeling and thought. Especially in America, where the autobiography was even then becoming an important cultural and literary form (think of Ben Franklin, Olaudah Equiano, and St. Jean de Crèvecoeur, for instance), the isolated individual was a figure of considerable importance. As traditional authority in political and cultural terms came under assault, many things seemed to come down to individual choice and individual perception—this was in one sense the nightmare underlying the dream of freedom achieved in the war against Britain. It followed that telling stories involved more than just assembling discrete facts into convincing wholes. The facts themselves might be in dispute, and how they fit together depended in large part on how the teller of any story was disposed to view the world.
In Wieland, the narrator (Clara Wieland) has a very personal investment in her story. For one thing, she wishes to explain her brother Theodore’s murderous actions and, by the manner in which she explains them, to insulate herself from their moral and mental contagion. She thus exaggerates the role that the supposed villain of her story, Francis Carwin, plays in the story. She contends that Carwin contaminated Theodore’s mind, inducing a kind of insanity that led him to commit murder. Otherwise, she seems to fear, the admitted emotional closeness of Clara and Theodore, who have grown up in an isolated home outside Philadelphia, might suggest that her own sanity is at least potentially in doubt. Carwin is not without blame in the actual events chronicled in Clara’s first-person narrative. He has uncanny talents. He can imitate other people’s voices and make it seem that they are speaking from distinct spatial locations. In addition, he is driven by an insatiable, dangerous curiosity that leads him to spy on other characters and repeatedly violate their privacy. Clara, wishing to downplay the potential madness of her brother, finds in these traits a useful dodge. Carwin is in fact a self-centered individual but he is no villain. If he exerts an effect on Theodore, it is mainly by setting in motion impulses that lead Theodore to become unhinged and, believing himself commanded by a divine voice, to murder his family as a sacrifice to God.
In another of his books, Arthur Mervin, Brown chose to tell the whole story by means of what one might call “embedded” first-person narratives: that is, we listen to one narrator who tells us part of the story, but who, on meeting another character, simply quotes that other character’s extensive first-person account of other aspects of the overall story. There is therefore no “omniscient” (all-knowing) narrator, and, it would follow, no epistemological stability in the world of that book.
In the case of Wieland, Brown similarly chose to write Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist, a later sequel to the main plot that is narrated from the viewpoint of Carwin. In this sequel, the villain we have been introduced to in Clara’s narrative emerges as a somewhat less threatening figure. He has the same failings, but we never see him use them for evil purposes. And we are led to imagine a Utopian future for him that will not include the sorts of events we encounter in Wieland.
The assignment here is to use Memoirs of Carwin as a tool for interpreting Wieland. You might write a traditional research paper that relies on the insights of various scholars and historians whose essays you have consulted. But you also might undertake a somewhat more creative approach. For instance, you might choose to write a response from Clara, in her own voice, to what Carwin says in his Memoirs. Or you might adopt Carwin’s voice and viewpoint to answer Clara’s views about his deeds and motives.
I have briefly mentioned this assignment already in class and will continue to do so in future meetings, especially once we begin reading Wieland (from November 29 to the end of the semester). The short, fragmentary Memoirs of Carwin is to be read independently, though on it, on Wieland, and on the project overall I will be available via email and online to provide feedback on your ideas or your publishs.