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Ventriloquizing the Classics: Cicero and Early American Gothic

James Uden

Boston University

The first Gothic novel in American literature, Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798), describes a case of sinister ventriloquism. In this work, a German immigrant community in rural Pennsylvania comes to tragic ruin when a mysterious outsider, the “biloquist” Carwin, begins impersonating voices and terrorizing the townspeople. While the fantastic plot revolves around the machinations of a single impersonator, other more pervasive kinds of cultural ventriloquism underlie the narrative. In particular, two central characters are preoccupied with the rhetorical powers of Cicero, venerating his memory and training their tongues to imitate his Latin speeches. Brockden Brown himself also later wrote a further Gothic fragment in which he indulged his own Ciceronian fantasy; it is written in the persona of Tiro and imagines the pursuit and grisly murder of his former master. In this paper I argue that Wieland, which has long been a canonical text among Early Americanists for probing the fault-lines and anxieties of the emergent nation (Looby 1996: 145-202; Kafer 2004), reflects a specific tension about America’s cultural inheritance from Europe. Wieland offers a dark corollary to the image of the United States as a reborn Roman Republic, mimicking classical virtues and rhetoric. Imitation in this novel is imagined as oppressive and even dangerous, and the classical past is a source not of guidance but of moral ambivalence and potential corruption.  

The novel is narrated (or rather ventriloquized) through the voice of a female character, Clara, and begins with a description of her father, whose religious fanaticism takes root in a neoclassical temple of his own construction (with ‘twelve Tuscan columns’, Barnard & Shapiro 2009: 12). Later, Clara describes her brother’s extraordinary worship of Cicero, ‘the chief object of his veneration’; he installs a bust of Cicero in his father’s temple and ‘seeks to imitate’ the Roman’s ‘gestures and cadences’. ‘His favorite occupation’, Clara tells us, was to embellish Cicero’s rhetoric with his own gesticulation and imitative phrases (Barnard & Shapiro 2009: 23-4). Later, he and a friend engage in a conversation about a textual crux in Cicero’s Pro Cluentio – the debate is described in some detail in the novel – and it is immediately afterwards that the first mysterious voices are heard (Barnard & Shapiro 2009: 29-30). The “biloquist” Carwin, who had previously been seen surveying Roman ruins in Saguntum, appears abruptly in the narrative as a perverse fulfillment of the other characters’ desires for imitation and impersonation. They are already recreating other voices, embodying tradition in their own manner and speech.

Caroline Winterer writes that ‘above all other ancient orators, Revolutionary Americans idealized Cicero… as a model of eloquence and style and also as the ideal citizen whose incorruptible morals protected the Roman Republic from tyranny’. She cites John Adams, who advised that Cicero’s ‘authority should have great weight’ (2002: 28). By contrast, Brockden Brown’s other Gothic work on classical themes, ‘Death of Cicero, A Fragment’ (1799), even though it is also animated by a desire to imagine life as a classical Roman, ends with a much more ambivalent assessment of Cicero’s legacy, judging his virtues against his character flaws (‘irresolute, desponding or perverse… More sensible to the stings of ingratitude and his personal humiliation than to the claims of his fellow citizens…’ (Barnard & Shapiro 2009: 222). Besides studying and unusual moment in the history of the Classical tradition, Brockden Brown’s Gothic writing gives us an opportunity for exploring the ethical entanglements of Roman exempla in early American society. These fictional works suggest an ambivalence about the cultural inheritance from Greece and Rome. Their Gothic vision gives horrific shape to the dangers that lurk in empty ventriloquism of the past. 

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Reception and National Traditions

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