Locating the Literati: Charles Brockden Brown in Philadelphia

Charles Brockden Brown - NYPL Digital GalleryIt’s hard to write about early American print culture or intellect without thinking a lot about geography. Scholars like Trish Loughran, Richard John, John Fea, John Brooke, and Mary Kelley have suggested, in all sorts of ways, that it’s often wise to understand “the” early American public as a web of fundamentally local reading and writing publics. Intellectual culture meant something different from what it means in an age of mass media. But tricky questions come up when you try to write a local history of ideas or culture. Just how local can we reasonably go? How much detail can we actually use in an intellectual map of the early United States without getting lost in coincidences and irrelevance?

I’m inspired to muse on this subject by some of my recent research, which has been guided to some extent by Peter Kafer’s ridiculously entertaining 2004 book on turn-of-the-century novelist and magazine editor Charles Brockden Brown.[1] Kafer makes much of Brown’s physical location at various times; he “situates” Brown’s fiction quite literally in the landscape of Pennsylvania. Often, Kafer gazes outward from eighteenth-century Philadelphia, peering as if through Brown’s eyes, to the northern and western countryside—the tangled and bloody forests of Brown’s imagination. Today, though, I want to look at the urban neighborhoods where Brown himself spent most of his life. Specifically, I want to look at what I’ll call three points of convergence—three locations or moments of contact I’ve stumbled across that might be useful for understanding how Brown fit into the intellectual communities of his time and place.

For reasons I’ll explain below, however, I want to start not with Brown but with a British radical, William Godwin.

As far as I can tell, the first copies of William Godwin’s philosophical novel Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams arrived in Philadelphia in late 1794 and went on sale in the shop of a man named Robert Campbell. They apparently arrived on the same London ship that brought the first retail copies of Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, a landmark in the development of “Gothic” literature. Both novels were available in Campbell’s shop by the end of October 1794.[2]

Caleb Williams and Udolpho had apparently arrived together in the New York market as well; both had entered Manhattan on a London ship named the Mohawk about two months earlier.[3] In fact, the books on sale in Philadelphia may also have come on the Mohawk, passing afterward from New York to Philadelphia, though it’s possible that they came direct from London. So for good measure, here (in the second line) is the Lloyd’s registration for the Mohawk in 1799:

(If I’m reading that right, the Mohawk was a ship of 293 tons, built with pine sides in New York in 1793; its usual voyage was between London and New York; and the ship’s master was Captain R. Morris.)

Either way, this is my first point of convergence: Two books that profoundly affected Anglo-American literary culture arrived in America and hit American urban markets simultaneously. By itself, this probably means nothing. But for someone interested in the circulation of novels in the early United States, and in Gothic fiction especially, this might be an interesting moment to investigate. Is it possible that the co-availability of texts affected their reception and influence? Or, on the other hand, is it possible that they were they read exclusively yet simultaneously by different people when they arrived in American stores? These sorts of questions might—or might not—lead in interesting directions.

My second point of convergence is related to the first. As it happens, Robert Campbell’s bookstore in Philadelphia, where Caleb Williams (along with Godwin’s earlier philosophical magnum opus Political Justice) went on sale, was located at 54 South Second Street. The house numbers have shifted over the years, so it takes a little digging to find out, but in 1794 that address put Campbell’s shop on the southwest corner of the intersection of Second and Chestnut Streets. (Today, this is the site of Philly’s massive U.S. Custom House.) On the map below, the approximate location is marked “A.”

That means Campbell’s bookstore was barely more than one full block north of a house at 117 South Second Street, just below where Second then intersected Dock Street. That was the home of Charles Brockden Brown.[4]

So in the autumn of 1794, Caleb Williams went on sale in Philadelphia just 200 yards from Brown’s home, and roughly the same distance from the Philadelphia riverfront.

Here it’s time for an important caveat: I’m not aware of any evidence that Brown actually bought a copy of Caleb Williams at Campbell’s shop. He may not have acquired a copy in Philadelphia at all. In fact, circumstantial evidence points a different direction. Brown seems to have been introduced to Godwin’s nonfiction philosophical writing, at least, by friends in New York, where he spent the following summer. It was under their influence that he fell, hard, for Godwin.[5] Brown somewhere got his hands on a copy of Caleb Williams as well as Godwin’s nonfiction, and reading the novel seems to have been the immediate impetus that launched him into his own career as a novelist. He returned to Philadelphia from New York in September 1795 determined to produce a book modeled on it: “I had planned so that I could finish a work equal in extent to Caleb Williams in less than six weeks; and wrote a quantity equivalent to ten of his pages daily, till the hot weather and inconvenient circumstances obliged me to relax my diligence.”[6]

So far, these physical locations may not mean much. The proximity of Brown’s home and Campbell’s bookstore may have had nothing to do with Brown’s literary career. Their closeness may be a mere coincidence; so far, I don’t even have any evidence that Brown ever visited Campbell’s shop. But it turns out that proximity probably did mean something when Brown later began publishing his novels.

That’s my third point of convergence. When Brown started publishing novels a little over two years later, he began by serializing them in a Philadelphia periodical called the Weekly Magazine. It was edited by a man named James Watters, who had spent the intervening two years managing the printing of Thomas Dobson’s pirate American edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. With that project over, the Weekly Magazine was Watters’s bid for an independent literary career. He proposed to devote his shop to it exclusively when he launched the first issue in February 1798.[7] So his timing was perfect for Brown, who became a founding contributor. The magazine serialized parts of his novels Alcuin and Arthur Mervyn, and it even published the only surviving fragment of Brown’s lost first novel, Sky-Walk.

Timing wasn’t the only convenient thing about the new magazine. Watters’s office was located just two or three blocks west of Brown’s home. It was in Willing’s Alley, “near the Old Chapel Yard.” If Brown wanted to drop by his editor’s offices to talk about the work, he had to walk all of 300 yards to do it. Based on the number of Brown’s contributions to the magazine, I’d say he had considerable influence in Watters’s shop. Proximity may help explain why.

Unfortunately, there was another dimension to that physical convergence—a tragic one. Let’s call this convergence number three-and-a-half.

Brown and Watters both lived close to the docks of the Delaware River. They lived in one of the neighborhoods that were hit hardest by Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemics in the 1790s.[8] Perhaps it should not be surprising that one of them contracted the illness.

James Watters—along with two other Weekly Magazine contributors whom Brown counted as friends—died in the yellow fever epidemic that burned through Philadelphia in the autumn of 1798. With them perished what would have been Brown’s first novel, Sky-Walk, or the Man Unknown to Himself. Brown had entrusted Watters with the manuscript; he was supposed to be the publisher. Somehow, in the confusion surrounding Watters’s death, the manuscript disappeared.[9]

The next year, Brown would publish a Gothic novel set during Philadelphia’s greatest epidemic, the yellow fever outbreak of 1793.[10]

So Watters’s physical location probably shaped his relationship with Brown, and thus the beginning of Brown’s career as a novelist. It probably influenced the plot of Brown’s later novel, Arthur Mervyn. And it certainly shaped the destiny of Brown’s earliest novel.

The problem is that I’m not sure any of these points of convergence means anything especially important about early American literary culture, per se. But together, they might point toward something interesting about 1790s Philadelphia literary culture and its relationships with the cultures of other places. I find myself envisioning the streets and waterways of Philadelphia as a series of tubes[11] through which experiences, conversations, and papers flowed. Philadelphia books and magazines look as if they might actually belong to “the politics of the street”—if not through the act of being read by the people out-of-doors, then at least through the authors’ presence and participation in the physical spaces of the city. But the implications are unclear to me. Could there be lurking somewhere in obsessively local research a new way of seeing the work of an author or reader in the early republic? Or is this kind of approach simply a distraction from the business of talking about texts’ relevance to the early American public sphere?


[1] Peter Kafer, Charles Brockden Brown’s Revolution and the Birth of American Gothic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

[2] “New Books: Robert Campbell,” Philadelphia Gazette, November 1, 1794, 4.

[3] “New Books,” Daily Advertiser, September 4, 1794, 2.

[4] James Hardie, The Philadelphia Directory and Register: Containing the Names, Occupations, and Places of Abode of the Citizens, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Jacob Johnson & Co., 1794), 17; Edmund Hogan, The Prospect of Philadelphia, and Check on the Next Directory, Part I: Giving, at a Single View, the Numbers of the Houses, Names of the Streets, Lanes, Courts, and Alleys; With the Names of the Present Inhabitants, and Their Occupations (Philadelphia: Francis & Robert Bailey, 1795), 119 and 121; Thomas Stephens, Stephens’s Philadelphia Directory, for 1796: Or, Alphabetical Arrangement: Containing the Names, Occupations, and Places of Abode of the Citizens (Philadelphia: Thomas Stephens, 1796), 22; Cornelius William Stafford, The Philadelphia Directory for 1798: Containing the Names, Occupations, and Places of Abode of the Citizens, Arranged in Alphabetical Order (Philadelphia: William W. Woodward, 1798), 28. Note that the 1794 directory places Charles B. Brown and his Quaker school at 117 North Second Street; presumably this was an error and the school was located in his father Elijah Brown’s home at 117 South Second.

[5] These friends were the members of the Friendly Club. For more on their interest in Godwinism, see Catherine O’Donnell Kaplan, Men of Letters in the Early Republic: Cultivating Forums of Citizenship (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008) and Bryan Waterman, Republic of Intellect: The Friendly Club of New York City and the Making of American Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), passim.

[6] Charles Brockden Brown to William Dunlap, September 1795, in Charles Brockden Brown, Collected Writings, vol. I, Letters and Epistolary Writings, ed. Philip Barnard, Elizabeth Hewitt, and Mark L. Kamrath (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2013), 293.

[7] “To the Public,” Weekly Magazine 1, no. 1 (February 3, 1798): xi–xii; “Terms on Which the Following Work Is Published,” Weekly Magazine 1, no. 1 (February 3, 1798): xiii.

[8] See Billy G. Smith, Paul Sivitz, Tara Chesley-Preston, Alex Schwab, and Stuart Challender, “Yellow Fever Deaths 1793,” 2012, http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/yellow-fever/yellow-fever-1793-jpg.

[9] Brown to Maria Nicholson, September 7-16, 1798, and editorial notes, in Collected Writings I:424-427.

[10] In writing Arthur Mervyn, Brown was also influenced by the death of one of his Friendly Club friends in New York, Elihu Hubbard Smith, who perished of the same disease two weeks later. Brown was rooming with Smith in New York at the time, and he helped arrange for Smith’s burial. Waterman, Republic of Intellect, 1-6 and 189-230.

[11] Apologies to Sen. Ted Stevens.

5 responses

  1. I wouldn’t do your approach down. Mark Philp has done some fairly extensive work tracing Godwin’s footsteps around London in the same period and has used it to try and map out the relationships between the various ‘players’ in radical society.

    • Thanks, Richard. I’m eager to read more examples of this sort of thing done well. Mostly I’m being influenced by work in urban social history that isn’t particularly sensitive to questions about intellectual life—or else work in the social history of ideas that often doesn’t seem very interested in the city (or port, or ship, or shop) itself. Both are fantastic, and I’d like to find ways to bring them together more.

    • Agreed! It was eye-opening. Even when I think Kafer’s arguments overreach his evidence a bit (and there are some moments like that), I can’t help but admire his willingness to take a calculated imaginative risk. The book would be a success even if far fewer of those risks paid off. It’s a wonderful little exploration of a writer’s world.

    • I stumbled on this book as I was researching my ancestor Peter Lesley Sr.(1735-1816) who lived next door to Elijah Brown when he lived at 159 Vine St. Peter Lesley lived at 157 Vine Street in 1791. He was a joiner who made coffins and as sexton of the Second Presbyterian Church, took care of the burials, rental of the hearse etc. All very dark and gothic stuff, especially during the Yellow fever. From all accounts he was a very somber person.

      I wonder if he and Elijah may have known each other, spent time talking about the Philadelphia during the war. Peter Lesley Sr. also signed an appeal for leniency for John Roberts, a wealthy Quaker who was famously hanged for treason after the British left Philadelphia.


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