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Re-Reading Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland

Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland was written just ten years after the United States Constitution, and its story spans the time period between the French-Indian War and the American Revolution. The fact that this novel, written in and about such a socio-politically charged time period, features a group of socially isolated characters highlights its interest in the tension between the personal and the political.  While one of its characters, Henry Pleyel, argues that for Cicero’s “oration for Cluentius” “to make the picture of a single family a model from which to sketch the condition of a nation” is “absurd,” Wieland has done just that.

Carwin, a mysterious outsider, incites personal and political anxiety in the main characters through ventriloquism.  His deceptions cause them to doubt their own inner voices, as is the case with the narrator, Clara, who consequently feels that there is a war going on inside of her.  This is significant in light of the actual French-Indian war, which she practically ignores. Because the characters act as though the events occurring outside their community have no relevance to them, Carwin is the closest thing they have to an external power structure.  Therefore his deceptions reveal his victims’ personal fears concerning the ambiguity of personal identity, but also their political fears about being misled by a corrupt new governing force as citizens of a new republic in political turmoil.

Carwin’s ventriloquism shows the characters that identity—both personal and political–is not an absolute truth, but rather a dialectical process. As C.B. Davis observes, ventriloquism “foregrounds ‘voice’ not as individual expression, idiolect, or linguistic ‘point of view,’ but as a signification of an identity that is always under construction in a give-and-take dialogue.” Carwin doesn’t merely mimic the characters’ language; he forces them to enter into a dialogue with their identities as individuals and as citizens of an emerging nation. Consequently, his victims’ insistence upon a clearly defined personal identity in response to their newfound doubt concerning their selfhood mirrors their nation’s struggles for a fixed national identity.