Contexts for Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly

This timeline/list is by no means comprehensive, but I’ve tried to provide some historical notes as well as literary history that will help ground your reading of this novel. Compared to our previous (British) Gothic novels, we have a whole new set of historical and cultural markers that are embedded in the text.

1675: Mary White Rowlandson, British colonist in Lancaster, Massachusetts is taken captive by Native Americans (who she calls “Indians,” and who were likely Narragansett and/or Wampanoag).

1682: Rowlandson publishes the account of her time in captivity: The Sovereignty and Goodness of God: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. Consider the role that the history and popularity of the captivity narrative has on Brown.

1682: Founding of Quaker colony of Pennsylvania by William Penn. Note that Brown is born to a Quaker family. By legend, the treaty between Penn and the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) Indians happened under a tree known as the “Treaty Elm.”

1737: The Walking Purchase Treaty – Delaware Indians defrauded of about 1,200 square miles of tribal territory in today’s Bucks, Lehigh, and Northampton counties of Pennsylvania.

1742: Iroquois-Quaker negotiation: Iroquois agree to evict the Delawares from the land on behalf of the Quaker-Anglo community.

1756-63: Seven Year’s War – the French and Indian War; Quakers v. Indians

1770: Boston Massacre

1771: Charles Brockden Brown born; also, Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin first half written; also, Benjamin West painting: Penn’s Treaty with the Indians

Benjamin West's The Treaty of Penn with the Indians, Oil on canvas, 190 x 274 c from wikimediacommons.


1776: American Revolution! Paine’s Common Sense; Jefferson’s Declaration o’ Independence

1777 – 78: Brown’s father banished for Quaker neutrality

1783: Treaty of Paris ends American Revolution

1784: Brown’s father imprisoned for debt

1787: Edgar Huntly is set in this year; Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia

1789: U.S. Constitution Ratified; French Revolution begins

1790s: Philadelphia is the largest and most culturally and politically diverse city in North America at the time.

1791: British-American author Susannah Rowson publishes Charlotte: A Tale of Truth in England; it is published in 1794 in America and becomes a bestseller as Charlotte Temple. Consider the role that this hugely popular novel and its ilk – often called the seduction novel – has on Brown.

1791 – 1804: Haitian Revolution

1793: Brown abandons the study of law (a profession his family wanted him to have); turns to a group of intellectual friends, among them Elihu Hubbard Smith (1771 - 1798), physician, abolitionist, and deist (reason & science as basis for religious belief) and probably the basis for Waldegrave’s character. The group is called “The Friendly Club.” The group members are actively engaged in the study of a wide array of writers & thinkers, including Mary Wolstonecraft (Vindication of the Rights of Women) and William Godwin (Political Justice and Caleb Williams). The cluster of thinker-writers can be referred to as “Woldwinite.” This period becomes a highly productive one for Brown with political pamphlets, editing, and fiction writing.

1794: William Godwin publishes Things as They Are, or the Adventures of Caleb Williams. Brown was crazy about Godwin and about this novel in particular. In a letter he wrote to William Dunlap in September of 1795, Brown claimed that he was attempting to write a novel “equal in extent to that of Caleb Williams” (qtd. in Pattee xvii). He also referred to the “transcendent merits of Caleb Williams” (qtd. in Pattee xix). Godwin’s work is very much politically and philosophically engaged, but this novel is also very much a Gothic novel. This is yet another literary tradition/genre that affects Brown. Note, too, that the exchange ran in both directions: Godwin and his daughter, Mary Shelley both read Wieland, Edgar Huntly, Ormond, Philip Stanley (titled Clara Howard in the U.S.), and Jane Talbot (St. Clair 380). Fliegelman states that Carwin, the villain in Wieland, was “a character who would influence Mary Shelley (an admirer of Brown’s) on the eve of her writing Frankenstein” (xx). Godwin even acknowledges Brown’s Wieland in his preface to his own novel Mandeville (1817), claiming Brown is “of distinguished genius” (x).

1796 -98: failed revolution in Ireland leads to increasing numbers of Irish immigrants to Philadelphia

1798: Alien and Sedition Acts – Federalists make it illegal to criticize the Adams administration and enable the arrest, imprisonment, and deportation of “radicals,” especially French and Irish.

1798: Brown was working on multiple novels at the same time; publishes Wieland and Alcuin, a Dialogue

1799: Edgar Huntly is published, as well as Ormond, or the Secret Witness, and Arthur Mervyn, or, Memoirs of the Year 1793


Haverford College has been working to preserve scions of the Treaty Elm. There's a Treaty Park now.

There's an interesting story about Charles Brockden Brown here, including an image of one of his manuscripts.


This page updated February 18, 2015.