The first-person narratives of Crèvecoeur, Franklin and Brown: Versions of the Nature and Fate of the Self in America

Hedin, Raymond William, Department of English, University of Virginia
Levin, David, Department of English, University of Virginia
Howard, Alan, As-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia

My contention is that the principal first-person narratives of Crèvecoeur , Franklin, and Charles Brockden Brown, when considered together, form a revealing dialectic concerning the nature and fate of the self in America. Crèvecoeur Letters from an American Farmer asserts at least initially that there is indeed a model American, the man of sensibility turned agrarian; Franklin's Autobiography asserts similarly that there is a model American but offers a seemingly antithetical version, the urban, socialized picaro of anti-sensibility; and Brown's best fictions, considered together, offer a corrective synthesis. Wieland comments on sensibility in a protected, insular setting much like Crèvecoeur, and Arthur Mervyn comments directly on the Franklinian model of benevolent rationalism in urban America. In these two books Brown suggests that apparently admirable, even model behavior is still the behavior of a self, that consequently these very different models share the inescapable qualities of selfhood, especially in being susceptible to unconscious egocentricity which turns seemingly benign sensibility inward in unhealthy ways or warps consciously benevolent purposes to selfish ends.

This study concentrates not only on the eighteenth-century literary contexts of sensibility and the picaresque which provided these writers with many of the relevant assumptions about the nature of the self, but also on the implications of their dialectic for subsequent literary tradition. Crèvecoeur and Franklin drew on European models of behavior, the man of sensibility and the picaro, and tried to show how they could work in an American setting. In Wieland and Arthur Mervyn, Brown showed how the failure of these models to adapt benignly to America produced behavior which, though not wholly admirable, at least could furnish appropriate material for a distinctive American literary form, the romance. Whereas in Crèvecoeur’s Letters the unforeseen emergence of passions and of a rudimentary plot indicate the failure of Crèvecoeur's assumptions about sensibility, in Brown the emergence of passion signals his understanding of his characters' failure and his own ability to exploit that failure by assimilating it into a romance plot of passion and violence. And in Arthur Mervyn Brown focuses directly on Franklin's unresolved tension between the asocial picaro and societal ethics and makes that tension the central issue of character by suggesting that the two elements are linked and made dangerous by levels of unconscious egocentricity. He thereby implants firmly within the tradition of fictional romance in America a fascination with the ambiguities of self-serving benevolence. By considering these three writers together, it is possible to see the force of optimistic assumptions about the self and the specific point at which skepticism about them first contributed to the darker strains of American romance.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
St. John de Crèvecoeur, J. Hector, 1735-1813, Franklin, Benjamin, 1706-1790, Brown, Charles Brockden, 1771-1810, First person narrative
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