Background

Charles Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn  (1799) is one of Brown’s four most well known novels (including Edgar Huntly, Wieland, and Ormand). Although it is perhaps not his most obviously gothic work and contains a notably optimistic ending, it still manages to maintain some American gothic themes and images. Arthur Mervyn also features the yellow fever epidemic which ravaged Philadelphia in 1793. The novel also boasts a very strange narrative format: there are multiple different narrators, including Dr. Stevens and Arthur Mervyn, and these narrators tell their stories in different forms: through diary entries, oral story-telling, and letters. Although the novel opens from Dr. Stevens’s perspective, it ends with Mervyn.

Plot Summary

The narrative opens with Dr. Stevens and his wife having found Arthur Mervyn  sitting on a bench near their house in Philadelphia, evidently suffering from the yellow fever. Mervyn is invited by the couple to their home so that he may be healed by Stevens and rest. Unfortunately, the couple’s friend, Mr. Wortley, discovers Mervyn after paying the Stevens household a visit, and tells his friend that Mervyn is not to be trusted due to his evident connection to the detestable Welbeck, who is both a thief and a forger. Once he is well enough, the Stevens request Mervyn to share his story- how did he come to contract yellow fever, why was he all alone on that bench, how is he connected to Welbeck, etc. In response, Mervyn tells the story of his unkind expulsion from his family home after his mother died and his father married an immoral, low class woman. From this country home, without much money, Mervyn traveled to Philadelphia, hoping to find a job and shelter. Unfortunately, these needs are answered by Welbeck, and Mervyn, unknowingly, accepts the offer to become Welbeck’s writer. The novel contains a number of misfortunes and misinterpretations that cause Mervyn’s fate and reputation to be repeatedly challenged: Twice does Mervyn believe that Welbeck has died only to be proven wrong by his eventual reappearance; Mervyn’s time in the city coincides with the yellow fever epidemic and he eventually contracts the dreaded disease; Mervyn must take part in the disposal of a man named Watson’s corpse after Welbeck kills him; Mervyn works to rescue Clemenza Lodi, one of Welbeck’s victims, from poverty, immorality, and a tarnished reputation after he finally discovers her in a house of prostitution; Mervyn must rescue his own reputation after his step-mother spread a lot of damaging gossip about him throughout his paternal neighborhood; Mervyn tries but fails to rescue the kind Hadwins from sorrow (they all die except for Eliza), however he manages to rescue Eliza, and eventually place her in the Philadelphia  home of Mrs. Fielding who educates her and accepts her as a sister; etc. After successfully emerging from all of these obstacles, Mervyn becomes a physician’s apprentice to Dr. Stevens, marries his beloved (and wealthy) Mrs. Fielding, and  the two plan to move to Europe.

Notes & Quotes

  • Despite the fact that Arthur Mervyn is the work of Charles Brockden Brown, the author credited with the creation of the American gothic, it is a surprisingly optimistic novel. Arthur experiences many setbacks and encounters numerous obstacles, however, because of his ability to work through them and remain honest, moral, and a good citizen committed to supporting his fellow Americans, he is able to not only survive them, but he grows and benefits from them. For example, because he was afflicted with the yellow fever and without any friends, Arthur is discovered on a bench by Dr. Stevens, who takes him home and eventually offers to train Arthur to become a physician. This is a step up from Arthur’s previous career prospects which were virtually nonexistent. It is also because of this journey that he meets and falls in love with Mrs. Fielding, who is presented as a major step up from Eliza mainly because of Mrs. Fielding’s growth and development as a result of her own trials and tribulations. At the end of the novel, however, Arthur and Mrs. Fielding leave for Europe. This is a common ending in Brown’s other fiction, however, I wonder why it’s repeated here. Perhaps America is the place to develop and grow, and Europe is a sort of reward?
  • AM seems to build off of Ben Franklin’s vision of the american dream and posits Arthur as an American hero. Just like Franklin, Arthur arrives in Philadelphia without much money and with an impoverished appearance. Both figures manage to gain money, reputation, and community via hard work and intellectual pursuit. This representation of the American dream is surprising coming from Brown, however, because in the two other novels by him which I read for this list, the characters that are most similar to Franklin are deeply unsettling figures. For example, Carwin first appears in Wieland  as a seductive mystery for Clara because he wears the clothes of a peasant, yet speaks intellectually. His ability to move between different classes is something represented as suspicious and artful. In Edgar Huntly, Clithero similarly doesn’t seem to fit in any class, because, although he was born to lower class parents, he received an education from the wealthy Mrs. Lorimer. Clithero has no class to which he is tethered to, which at least partly leads to his attempt at suicide.
  • Arthur Mervyn himself seems to reenact the story of the nation’s birth. He is kicked out of his paternal home after his father becomes degraded as a result of his marriage to a low class and immoral woman. It is because of Arthur’s inability to reside silently under such tyrannical rule, that he acts out and is ultimately forced to leave to find his own fortune in Philadelphia, without any assistance from them.
  • I loved all the discussion of air and atmosphere in this narrative. Perhaps this is the most gothic element of Arthur Mervyn and it certainly reminded me of Poe’s gothic. According to the story’s logic, the yellow fever is spread through the contaminated air of Philadelphia. It therefore disavows the germ theory, which posits that the disease was transmitted via contagion across bodies (a belief that some of the characters fear, however, Arthur “discovers” that this is not the case). Not only does disease spread through the air of the city, but fear and panic also is caught by too much time spent in the urban environment. The moment Arthur (and others) emerge from Philly into the nearby country, they relax and comfortably breathe the fresh air, confident that they won’t contract the disease. The yellow fever, and the contaminated air in which it resides, are described in very gothic terms.

I mounted the stair. As I approached the door of which I was in search, a vapor, infectious and deadly, assailed my senses. It resembled nothing of which I had ever before been sensible. Many odours had been met with, even since my arrival in the city, less supportable than this. I seemed not so mech to smell as to taste the element that now encompassed me. I felt as if I had inhaled a poisonous and subtle fluid, whose power instantly bereft my stomach of all vigour. Some fatal influence appeared to seize upon my vitals, and the work of corrosion and decomposition to be busily begun.

In the above quote, Arthur also takes on the belief of Dr. Benjamin Rush, who encouraged Philadelphians to combat the disease by “feeling the disease’s presence in the body” (Waples 14).

  • The role of money also is tied to the gothic elements present within AM. For example, money is the foundation of many of the gothic plot points: it causes the murder of Watson, it has degraded most members of the Maurice family, it is involved in the business of prostitution (which Clemenza Lodi is practically forced into), etc. Even Welbeck, the primary villain of the novel, was tainted by the money with which he was entrusted by Lodi. Arthur’s position as moneyless allows him to encounter the numerous obstacles that color the novel and that help him to develop into the moral and heroic character that he becomes.

 

Arthur Mervyn, or, Memoirs of the Year 1793 (1799) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.