Hugh Henry Brackenridge

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Publisher: Gale
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography
Length: 9,026 words

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About this Person
Born: 1748 in Campbeltown, Scotland
Died: June 25, 1816 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Writer
Other Names: Brackenridge, Hugh Henry


  • A Poem, on the Rising Glory of America; Being an Exercise Delivered at the Public Commencement at Nassau-Hall, September 25, 1771 ..., by Brackenridge and Philip Freneau (Philadelphia: Printed by Joseph Crukshank for R. Aitken, 1772).
  • A Poem on Divine Revelation; Being an Exercise Delivered at the Public Commencement at Nassau-Hall, September 28, 1774 ... (Philadelphia: Printed & sold by R. Aitken, 1774).
  • The Battle of Bunkers-Hill. A Dramatic Piece of Five Acts, in Heroic Measure (Philadelphia: Printed & sold by Robert Bell, 1776).
  • The Death of General Montgomery, at the Siege of Quebec. A Tragedy. With an Ode, in Honour of the Pennsylvania Militia, and the Small Band of Regular Continental Troops, Who Sustained the Campaign, in the Depth of Winter, January, 1777, and Repulsed the British Forces from the Banks of the Delaware ... (Philadelphia: Printed & sold by Robert Bell, 1777).
  • Six Political Discourses Founded on the Scripture (Lancaster: Printed by Francis Bailey, 1778).
  • An Eulogium of the Brave Men Who Have Fallen in the Contest With Great-Britain: Delivered on Monday, July 5, 1779 ... (Philadelphia: Printed by F. Bailey, 1779).
  • Narratives of a Late Expedition against the Indians; With an Account of the Barbarous Execution of Col. Crawford; and the Wonderful Escape of Dr. Knight and John Slover from Captivity, in 1782 (Philadelphia: Printed by Francis Bailey, 1783).
  • Modern Chivalry ..., part 1, volumes 1 and 2 (Philadelphia: Printed & sold by John M'Culloch, 1792); revised edition, 1 volume (Philadelphia: J. Conrad, 1804); part 1, volume 3 (Pittsburgh: Printed & sold by John Scull, 1793); part 1 volume 4 (Philadelphia: Printed & sold by John M'Culloch, 1797); part 1, volumes 3 and 4, revised edition, 1 volume (Philadelphia & Richmond: Jacob Johnson, 1807); part 2, volume 1 (Carlisle: Printed by Archibald Loudon, 1804); part 2, volume 2 (Carlisle: Printed by Archibald Loudon, 1805); parts 1 and 2 revised edition, 4 volumes (Philadelphia & Richmond: Johnson & Warner, 1815); revised again, 2 volumes (Pittsburgh: Patterson & Lambdin, 1819).
  • Incidents of the Insurrection in the Western Parts of Pennsylvania, in the Year 1794 ... (Philadelphia: Printed & sold by John M'Culloch, 1795).
  • The Standard of Liberty, An Occasional Paper, as Democritus (Philadelphia, 1802?).
  • Gazette Publications ... (Carlisle: Printed by Alexander & Phillips, 1806).
  • An Epistle to Walter Scott ... (Pittsburgh: Franklin Head Printing Office, 1811?).
  • Law Miscellanies ... (Philadelphia: P. Byrne, 1814).

Editions and Collections

  • Modern Chivalry, edited by Claude M. Newlin (New York: American Book Company, 1937).
  • Modern Chivalry, edited by Lewis Leary (New Haven: College & University Press, 1965).
  • A Hugh Henry Brackenridge Reader: 1770-1815, edited by Daniel Marder (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970).


Hugh Henry Brackenridge played an important role in America's literary and social history. His career was colorful, remarkably varied, and uniquely American. An immigrant who rose from poverty to become a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, he was also a political essayist, playwright, preacher, schoolmaster, editor, minor poet, and satirical novelist. A learned classicist who longed for the coffeehouses of London, he lived and worked on the frontier, actively involving himself in the major political controversies in those turbulent times when the young democracy was struggling to define itself. His eccentric personality and the turmoil surrounding his life in politics and the law often overshadow his importance as a major literary figure in the post-Revolutionary period. Modern Chivalry, the work on which his reputation rests, is a satire on democracy, written in installments from 1792 to 1815 and containing, as the author tells us, "All of which I saw and part of which I was." It was as Fred Lewis Patee noted, "the first balanced treatment of democracy in America, the first supremely important book" produced on the Western frontier.

Born in Kintyre, Scotland, in 1748, Brackenridge moved with his family to Pennsylvania in 1753. His father, William Brackenridge, joined other Scot-Irish immigrants in clearing the land and farming a frontier settlement in York County called The Barrens.

The physically demanding labor of farming a land where Indian raids were a constant danger never dimmed young Brackenridge's love of learning. Encouraged by his mother, he attended school at Slate Ridge and later traveled to Fagg's Manor in Chester County in search of books and counseling from the Reverend John Blair. By the age of thirteen he had a command of Latin and a firm grasp on Greek. His inclination toward satire is demonstrated by his early fascination with Horace and later with the dialogues of Lucian : "I acknowledge, indeed, that in my earlier years, and in the course of my academic studies, I had contracted some taste, even habit, this way; owing to my reading the dialogues of Lucian , in the original Greek." This satirical bent advanced further when he read Cervantes, La Sage, and Swift: "I found myself still more inclined to an ironical, ludicrous way of thinking and writing."

At fifteen he taught and advanced his own education at the free school in Gunpowder Falls, Maryland, where his fiery temper and rigorous standards impressed his students and the trustees as well. He stayed five years until, as his son Henry Marie tells us in his "Biographical Notice" (Southern Literary Messenger, January 1842), "he had exhausted the sources of learning near him." In 1768 he enrolled in the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University. At Princeton he met and became friends with Philip Freneau and James Madison , two men who, in a sense, represent literature and politics, the twin passions which were to occupy Brackenridge's life.

The curriculum at Princeton suited Brackenridge's love of languages, history, natural philosophy, moral science, mathematics, and oratory. President John Witherspoon 's lectures on neoclassical literary theories and Whig political philosophy reinforced his love of the classics and informed his emerging democratic idealism. While advancing himself academically, he also found time to supplement his small income by composing papers for his less talented classmates. Politically, the campus was alive with controversy. The Tories united in the Cliosophic Society, and Brackenridge and his friends formed the Whig Society in opposition. A paper war ensued. The "Satires Against the Tories," written by Brackenridge, Freneau, and Madison, are high-spirited but crude attacks with little attention to literary subtlety. When the vigor of the verbal warfare resulted in public brawling, the college considered disbanding both groups.

In 1770, again in collaboration with Freneau, Brackenridge wrote a fictional narrative in prose entitled "Father Bombo's Pilgrimage to Mecca." Although only fragments of the manuscript are known to exist, Lewis Leary maintains that "if the complete work could be found it would challenge for place as the first novel in America." Daniel Marder suggests that the fragments which do remain may represent America's first work of prose fiction. The narrative's use of the picaro, the dialect of the uneducated Irishmen, and the theme of moderation anticipate Modern Chivalry. Brackenridge's debt to Swift is evident in the character of Father Bombo, a picaresque hero who survives in a world of ignorance and superstition by dint of his roguish wit and classical learning. The wily priest also exemplifies characteristics later found in both Captain Farrago and Teague O'Regan, the major figures in Modern Chivalry. Like the learned Captain Farrago, Bombo is a "trimmer," a moderate who when faced with extremes on either side, elects the middle course. "I therefore resolved to steer a mean between both for according to that wise Philosopher Ovid, in medio tutissimus ibis. The midway is best." Like Teague, he is a confidence man who rises on the shoulders of the ignorant.

On 25 September 1771, Brackenridge and Freneau presented at the Princeton commencement ceremony A Poem, on the Rising Glory of America , a poem modeled on Virgil and Milton, which celebrated with unrestrained optimism America's manifest destiny, the inevitable triumph of the new over the old in the arts, science, and commerce. The poem's three speakers, Eugenio, Acasto, and Leander, are flat characters, indistinguishable from each other, and the verse, by Brackenridge's admission, is labored. Brackenridge was to attempt more work in the epic vein before realizing that, for him, prose was "a safer walk," and before his unbridled enthusiasm for the new democracy was dimmed by his experiences on the frontier. The poem, printed in Philadelphia in 1772, was his first published work.

At his graduation in 1771, Brackenridge resisted the call of A Poem, on the Rising Glory of America to become a writer--thus contributing to the triumph of American arts--and stayed another year to study for the ministry, more to exercise his gift for oratory than for pietistic reasons. In 1772, with Freneau as his assistant, he taught at an academy in Somerset County, Maryland, returning to Princeton in 1774 to take his master's degree. At commencement he read A Poem on Divine Revelation, again, like A Poem, on the Rising Glory of America, in the grand style, but adding that, along with art, science, and commerce, Christianity will come to full flower in the New World. An imitation of Milton in its high seriousness and formal verse, it remains little more than an occasional poem revealing the author's limited gifts for the verse epic. A Poem on Divine Revelation was published in Philadelphia in 1774 but received little attention.

Like Freneau, Brackenridge was ardently patriotic and violently anti-British. As the Revolution was gathering force, Brackenridge, having returned to his post in Maryland, wrote two heroic plays, The Battle of Bunkers-Hill (1776) and The Death of General Montgomery (1777). The former praises the valor of the Americans and their moral victory while the latter tells of British brutality at the siege of Quebec. Both plays are in the grand manner, with more oratory than action, but Brackenridge's outrage is real, and passages of descriptive realism suggest that he was beginning to find his voice.

In 1777, although never officially ordained, Brackenridge joined Washington's army as a chaplain. He saw himself as a heroic bard whose oratory would inspire patriotic rather than religious zeal. His sermons, "founded on the Scriptures," are passionate denunciations of the British, not Satan, and he makes no pretense that they are otherwise: "I am careful to assure my countrymen that these discourses are what they pretend to be, of a nature chiefly political." Clearly, his long-delayed decision to abandon the pulpit had been made. The real and present danger to the new democracy fed Brackenridge's combative nature, and he marshalled his talents to do battle in the field of human affairs. His attacks on "The Bloody Vestiges of Tyranny" exhibited none of the moderation he was to recommend throughout Modern Chivalry.

In 1778, after a year in the army, Brackenridge traveled to Philadelphia, where he published a selection of his sermons entitled Six Political Discourses Founded on the Scriptures and where, with a life savings of £1,000, he established the United States Magazine. Still imbued with a sense of America's rising glory, Brackenridge ignored the realities of the intellectual market place, envisioning a broad-based reading public eager for literature that would entertain and instruct. While acknowledging that the public might "complain that our publication is too highly rated," he assured readers that, with rising inflation, the magazine was actually a bargain. Convinced that Americans "were able to cultivate the Belles Lettres even disconnected from Great Britain," he published a monthly "literary coffee house" with frequent contributions from Freneau. The magazine, the first number of which was published in January 1779, failed after one year. In addition to "Beauties of Santa Cruz" and "House of Night" by Freneau, the United States Magazine had also presented in monthly installments Brackenridge's short story "The Cave of' Vanhest," which Lewis Leary calls "the first native tale set against a realistic background and the first fiction to use the realities of the American Revolution as a theme."

The background of "The Cave of Vanhest" is, indeed, realistic, but the foreground is decidely romantic. The narrator recounts the deaths of soldiers and the sufferings of civilians in the battle around Monmouth at the request of the master of the cave, a learned recluse who, along with his two daughters, has retired from civilization. The congenial company and the romantic environment of the hermit's blissful bower inspire the narrator to musings on his own past, his love for and subsequent disappointments with the muses of art and theology, and his present attachment with "Miss Law, a grave and comely young lady, a little pitted with the small pox." A tone of romantic melancholy pervades the piece and the details are clearly autobiographical: less than a year away from the war and faced with the imminent demise of his magazine, Brackenridge was, at the time of the writing, studying for the bar and considering his remove to the western wilderness. The story's final installment ends with "to be continued."

The failure of the magazine darkened Brackenridge's faith in the ability of the honest husbandman to improve through reading until "He will be capable of any office to which the gale of popularity amongst his countryman may raise him." Brackenridge's anger at "the people who inhabit the region of stupidity" was to fester for a decade until in Modern Chivalry he answered the question he had posed earlier in the preface to the first issue of the United States Magazine: "For what is a man without taste and the acquirements of genius? An orangutan with the human shape and the soul of a beast."

After completing his study of the law under Samuel Chase of Annapolis, Maryland, Brackenridge was admitted to the bar in December of 1780. Recognizing that Philadelphia was awash with lawyers and that "there were so many great men before me," he chose the frontier as the best place for a young lawyer to get up in the world. In 1781, he crossed the Alleghenies to the new settlement of Pittsburgh, where his optimism suffered further setbacks. Speaking in the introduction to his magazine, he had recommended to travelers that should they visit abodes beyond the Alleghenies they would "be pleased to find so knowing and polite a people in this embowered residence." What he found was a place without house or street and people by rowdy backwoodsmen who would later elect to office the ignorant "Traddle," and ignore the accomplishments of the cultured Philadelphia lawyer.

The harsh realities of life on the frontier temporarily dimmed Brackenridge's desire to produce sophisticated literature. When American troops under a Colonel Crawford were captured, tortured, and killed by Indians, Brackenridge turned to reportage, sending accounts of two survivors back to Eastern readers. Narratives of a Late Expedition against the Indians , relating the captivity and escape of Dr. Knight and John Slover, published in 1783, told with graphic realism the dangers of dealing with these "animals vulgarly called Indians." Brackenridge's experiences as a youth in The Barrens of York County had established his antipathy toward the native Americans, and his grim reporting of Indian atrocities was designed to influence Eastern readers away from the European view of the noble savage and toward a realistic appraisal of the dangers Indian raids presented to frontier settlements.

Brackenridge tried his hand one last time at polite letters with A Masque, Written at the Warm Springs in Virginia, in the Year 1784. The composition honored General Washington, who was visiting Warm Springs while on tour of his western holdings. Washington's diary for the day of the performance records details of business but no mention of Brackenridge's masque. A year after the event, Brackenridge unsuccessfully opposed Washington's efforts to evict squatters from land he had purchased from a Colonel Groghan. Lawyer Brackenridge maintained, as he had earlier in the United States Magazine, that because Indians had no right to land they did not cultivate, Groghan's original purchase of the land was invalid. Brackenridge lost, and the squatters were evicted.

In spite of his avowed contempt for the red man, Brackenridge demonstrated his characteristic unpredictability and independent nature when he defended an Indian accused of murder. "The Trial of Mamachtage," written in 1785 (but not published until 1808, when it appeared in a collection of narratives about the Indians), is the objective account of the trial and execution of a Delaware Indian for the murder of two white men. The narrative reveals an essential nobility in the Indian character and a sympathetic picture of native Americans living in the white man's world. Brackenridge's artistic curiosity and uncompromising integrity is nowhere better illustrated than in "The Trial of Mamachtage."

For the first few years after he settled in Pittsburgh, his law practice prospered. He built a house and married a Miss Montgomery in 1785. A year later, his son Henry Marie was born. His law practice involved him in most of the major political and economic problems facing the frontier settlements, and his political ambitions were rising. He helped to establish the Pittsburgh Gazette in 1786: "One of the earliest things which I thought of on going to reside in the Western Country was the encouragement of a public paper." His contributions to the paper were sometimes "ludicrous," but for the most part they were political pieces by which he hoped to advance to public office. His interest in the advancement of the town of Pittsburgh was, however, quite genuine. He wrote well-reasoned arguments for the establishment of a court in Pittsburgh and recommended an academy as the best way to assure an educated electorate. He predicted also a bright economic future for the town: "This Town must in future time be a place of great manufactory, Indeed the greatest on the continent, or perhaps the world." Through his efforts the town got its first bookstore and, in 1786, the Pittsburgh Academy, later the University of Pittsburgh.

Elected to the state assembly on the strength of the wide circulation of his ideas in the Pittsburgh Gazette , Brackenridge, following a trait which marked his whole career, voted his independent mind and alienated his backwoods constituency, effectively ending his future hopes for elected office. Confident that he was best qualified to represent the West at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, his bitter defeat at the hands of an Irishman, William Findley, set in motion a literary revenge which would culminate in 1792 with the first volume of Modern Chivalry. The first volley in the campaign, delivered in the Pittsburgh Gazette of 14 November 1787, was a rhymed satirical attack in which Findley was portrayed as Traddle, an illiterate Irishman unfit for public office. In subsequent issues, ending in June of the following year, Brackenridge wrote letters in which he widened his attack to include not only the demagogic candidate but also the arrogant ignorance of the uninformed voters. The battle lines were drawn. The threat to the rising glory of democracy came within when the demagogue was swept into office by the "gale of popularity amongst his countrymen." Trained classicist and ardent democrat, Brackenridge looked to satire as a means to restore the natural order of things.

During this period, the evolutionary progress of Modern Chivalry took another step forward in the form of The Modern Chevalier (first published in Gazette Publications, 1806), a long Hudibrastic poem continuing the satire on Traddle and introducing the character of the Chevalier, knight errant and direct antecedent to Captain Farrago. When Brackenridge finally abandoned verse in favor of prose, the vaguely conceived Chevalier became the quixotic John Farrago, and Traddle was transformed in the archetypal parvenu, Teague O'Regan.

The death of his wife in 1788 left Brackenridge with an infant son and a law practice in need of repair. With more practical dispatch than emotion, he married Sabina Wolfe in mid-1790 and promptly sent her off to Philadelphia to "wipe off the rusticities" of the frontier. The couple produced three children, two boys and a girl, who along with their elder brother received a classic education under the tutelage of their father.

Brackenridge was at work on Modern Chivalry by the middle of 1790. The first two volumes were published in Philadelphia in 1792. Volume three, the first work in American literature written and printed on the frontier, appeared in Pittsburgh one year later.

Brackenridge could not long remain aloof from public debate and controversy. In Freneau's National Gazette he had taken stands against Washington's pro-British policy and against the excise tax. In his enthusiasm for the French cause he returned to the passionate oratory he had used to inflame patriotic emotions during his tenure as chaplain in Washington's army. In a letter "To the President," published in the National Gazette of 15 May 1793, Brackenridge responded to the neutrality proclamation by maintaining that neutrality in the struggle against monarchy was impossible, that neutrality was tantamount to desertion. Ironically, when the Whiskey Rebellion began in 1794, Brackenridge found himself caught between loyalty to the federal government and support of Western resistance to Hamilton's excise tax on whiskey produced by frontier farmers. To avoid the open rebellion which threatened the security of the Republic, he sided with the insurrectionists in order to divert the current away from violence by reasonable argument and delay. Although he was successful in defusing the explosive intentions of the frontiersmen, his efforts at moderation earned him enmity from both sides. Hamilton, convinced that Brackenridge had led the rebellion, sent troops to the West. Fearing for his life, Brackenridge put his papers in order, wrote a report explaining his conduct during the affair, and awaited his fate. Hamilton, finding the energy of the rebellion already spent as a result of Brackenridge's mediating strategies, admitted after a brief hearing that the lawyer's conduct had been "horribly misrepresented." Brackenridge was exonerated, but his reputation was under a cloud in both the East and the West.

A year later he again explained his conduct, this time in a 361-page book entitled Incidents of the Insurrection in the Western Parts of Pennsylvania, in the Year 1794 . Told in clear, direct prose, his dramatic account of the events provides us with an invaluable historical document as well as a penetrating insight into mob psychology, the volatility of the political temper in the young democracy, and, what is most important, insight into the mind of a man of sensibility torn between "treason on the one hand and public odium on the other." Brackenridge places himself at the center of the drama, evaluating the tide of social and psychological forces moving toward rebellion, and examining with scrupulous detail his own struggle to comprehend events, maintain his courage, and restore reason and order among extremists. Incidents of the Insurrection in the Western Parts of Pennsylvania is a serious, sober narrative written to restore his reputation. Brackenridge did not, however, stay serious for long. In the fourth volume of Modern Chivalry, published in 1797, he makes a final reference to the incident when Teague, a newly appointed excise officer, is tarred and feathered by the mob, and Farrago, for his attempt to explain to the people that their behavior was subversive and "destructive of the first principle of a republican government," is vilified by the administration as an instigator. Captain Farrago is finally "acquitted from the suspicion of having swerved from the duty of a good citizen."

Having rebuilt his reputation after the incidents of the insurrection, Brackenridge, a Jeffersonian, again went against the tide by becoming a leader of the anti-Federalist party at a time when most of the West was leaning toward Federalism. Ironically, it was the Pittsburgh Gazette , under the editorship of John Scull, which attacked Brackenridge in his campaign for State Assembly. In need of a platform to counterattack Scull's "Blackguard Journalism," Brackenridge in 1880 established his own newspaper, Tree of Liberty. Brackenridge was defeated in his bid for office, but his efforts helped his party's candidates for Congress and governor and led to his own appointment as a justice of the State Supreme Court. However, even this seemingly secure position was embroiled in controversy. The Pittsburgh Gazette continued to ridicule Brackenridge by describing the judge on his opening day of court as "almost 'stark naked' and nearly 'stark mad' from too much tipple." In a later issue, he was pictured as the "biographer of the insurgents" and as a "haberdasher of pronouns." Brackenridge refers to these attacks in part two of Modern Chivalry , the opening sections of which examine blackguard journalism and slander, "especially if that slander is of a private, and domestic nature."

By 1804, the ambient anti-intellectualism in the West had manifested itself in hatred for the judiciary, resulting at one point in impeachment proceedings against three justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Although Brackenridge was not among the three accused, he volunteered to stand with his fellow jurors. The House Committee of Impeachment refused his offer, voting instead to have him removed from the bench for neglect of duty. All four justices were acquitted, but Brackenridge made use of the events by incorporating into part two of Modern Chivalry a lengthy defense of the judicial system. Economy, he says in volume one, is the ruling passion of the day and antipathy to laws, lawyers, and judges runs to extremes, "for the people are not always right." He argues that "It may be too soon yet to abolish all law, and jurisprudence."

During the period 1801-1814, while living in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Brackenridge attempted a "Pennsylvania Blackstone," a study of the adaptability of English law and a defense of the use of English precedents in American courts. Recognizing that a full survey of the legal system was beyond him, he settled for a series of essays, which were collected and published in 1814 under the title Law Miscellanies , a valuable contribution to the development of American jurisprudence. Despite efforts such as these, accounts of Brackenridge's career on the bench emphasize more his person than his scholarly accomplishments. Two contemporary observers, Horace Binny and David Paul Brown, both lawyers, recorded impressions of Brackenridge. Brown, cited by Marder, says that the judge was "reserved and misanthropic," alone and shunning company. According to Brown, Brackenridge cared little about his clothes and frequently appeared in court unshaven, his shirt open in the coldest weather, and his hair uncombed. Horace Binny saw the judge charge a jury in his bare feet. Marder, in his study of Brackenridge, quotes from a work published in 1950 to prove the longevity of the legend of Brackenridge the eccentric juror: "He was tall, 'bent in the shoulders,' with a facetious turn of humor that was often at variance with his judicial functions. Careless in dress, often owning only one suit of clothes and no stockings, he was not above kicking off his boots while on the bench and delivering his charge to the jury with bare feet propped on the bar of justice. Once he was seen riding naked through the rain, with his one suit of clothes folded under the saddle, for, he explained 'the storm, you know, would spoil the clothes, but it couldn't spoil me.' Yet this same backwoods political philosopher wrote commentaries on Blackstone, entertained Philip Egalité in his home and was of sufficient stir in the world to have his portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart."

Although busy with his duties on the judiciary, Brackenridge also found time to publish the two volumes of part two of Modern Chivalry at Carlisle in 1804 and 1805. No further volumes were to see print, but he continued his observations on public issues in notebooks. Near the end he explains that his book "was not suspended, as to the writing; but only as to the publication." In the last years of his life, Brackenridge was resigned but not bitter. His was a dream deferred, for, in the words of his son, Henry Marie, he was "a man but imperfectly appreciated in his own day, because like others of original cast of intellect, he was ahead of the age, but whose fame is destined to increase, as it becomes more removed from the times in which he lived." In 1815 the author saw through the press a revised edition containing the six volumes previously published as well as material gleaned from notebooks covering the period 1805-1815. Brackenridge died the following year.

The citation from Juvenal which appears on the title page of volume one, part one, of Modern Chivalry sets the tone for the entire work: Quicquid agunt homines, nostri, farrago libelli ("Whatever men do is the hodgepodge of my book"). The purpose, Brackenridge says, is to examine "all created things and certain others." In the introduction he announces that his book is to be a language experiment only, a model of good writing, "a book without thought or the smallest degree of sense," although he allows that it may yield some amusement. The narrative framework is erected on the travels of Captain John Farrago, a Jeffersonian gentleman farmer (whose surname means "a medley, a conglomeration, a dish of mixed grains"), and his servant, Teague O'Regan, an illiterate Irish immigrant eager to rise up in the world. Farrago, with the ignorant bogtrotter at his heels, travels about the country to observe human nature, and to see firsthand how the newly enfranchised citizens conduct their affairs. The Captain tries vainly to restrain his servant's unbridled ambition but finds that ignorance and a thick brogue are advantages in the eyes of the public when Teague applies for positions as an actor, a minister, a lawyer, and professor of languages. Moreover, the back country electorate, heady with their power to elect whomever they please, promote the Irishman to public office and even propose him for membership in the American Philosophical Society. Indeed, he is appointed excise officer by Washington himself and, at the end of part two, will likely become ambassador to England.

Perhaps better than any other writer of his generation, Brackenridge understood the full meaning of the democratic experiment, the vitality as well as the dangers inherent in the "rage of mere democracy." His realistic picture of democracy in action is as valuable to the student of American social history as is Tocqueville's objective survey of the principles and promise of self-government in America. A passionate democrat, Brackenridge made himself the devil's advocate, sublimating his experiences in politics and law into writings which illustrated the tyranny of the few and the tyranny of the many, while recommending the proper course between both extremes. However, Brackenridge's public life frequently overshadows his life as a man of letters. His place in American literary history, resting as it does on his one major work, Modern Chivalry, is still not firmly established.

According to Mrs. Elvert M. Davis, Modern Chivalry "was in its day the most widely read book in the United States," going through edition after edition during the lifetime of the author. Daniel Marder avers that it was "read over the frontier, by some back East and in Europe ... at least by the king of France." John Quincy Adams said in 1843 that he had read the book as a youth and had "formed a pleasant acquaintance with Captain Farrago and his man Teague." Brackenridge contends that five booksellers made a fortune from his book, adding somewhat extravagantly that in Pennsylvania "there's scarcely a parlour window without a Modern Chivalry. In the West, Brackenridge's name was a household word for half a century. In 1835 the Pittsburgh Literary Examiner claimed that Modern Chivalry was "to the West what Don Quixote was to Europe, the humorous textbook of all classes of society." There was, however, little critical response from the literary establishment in the East, owing in part to the fact that, according to the editor of the 1855 edition of part one, "the whole work has never been got up in a manner to give it currency among the higher class of readers." There would be a time, the editor concluded, when Modern Chivalry would take its place "among the masterpieces of human genius." A review of modern critical opinion indicates that the time has not yet come.

Daunted by its length (Claude M. Newlin's 1937 edition of the complete work runs to 808 pages) and apparent disorder, critics praise Modern Chivalry for its parts, often mistaking a part for the whole. It has been called "a jumbled thesaurus of Americana," a satire modeled on Don Quixote, a hodge-Podge, our first back country book, a sketch, a book of the best American tales written before Charles Brockden Brown 's, a Swiftian satire, a forerunner of the novel, a Menippean satire, an anatomy. To Alexander Cowie it is a book by the "first distinguished American novelist to make substantial use of picaresque technique and of political satire." For Pattee, it is a classic book, but "not because of what its author believed to be its main purpose." Critics make procrustean adjustments to make it a novel, then demonstrate how it falls short. For example William L. Nance says, "It qualifies to some extent as a novel of a semi-picaresque variety." However, because it is a loosely connected series of incidents joined together only by a common character, Edward Park Anderson concludes that it "can scarcely be called the first American novel." Even Daniel Marder, the best of the authorities on Brackenridge, avoids labeling it a novel, picaresque or otherwise. Because novel-centered criticism cannot place Modern Chivalry in a convenient pigeonhole, it is generally assumed to be a mutation, an important book, brilliant but seriously flawed.

Modern Chivalry is not a novel nor was it meant to be; however, one must resist the temptation to go immediately to another genre on the assumption that it must therefore be a picaresque or a comic epic. The prose is modeled on Swift and Sterne. The characters have traceable ancestors. The satiric technique is in a direct line from Menippius, Juvenal, Horace, Lucian , Rabelais, Cervantes, Butler, Swift, and Sterne. The picaresque form was a hybrid, an amalgam of the classical and the modern. It is a picaresque in the sections where there is narrative movement. It is an anatomy of democracy in its didactic lectures, sermons, and scholarly essays. It is a satire in the Menippean manner, through Juvenal and Swift, where it attacks folly and vice, and Horatian satire where the author chides and instructs rather than inflames. Brackenridge's major achievement lies in the way in which he combines the various elements into a unified whole, creating a uniquely American book which captures with robust realism an age that the sentimental novelists and the conservative epic writers scarcely recognized.

Post-Revolutionary political and ethical behavior was the subject and source of Modern Chivalry . Judge Brackenridge understood the extreme heterogeneity of his audience. To turn the new leveling democracy away from extremism and toward balance and moderation, he had to appeal at one time to the rowdy backwoodsman and to the literati of the urban centers.

The form and content of Modern Chivalry work together to achieve two positions at once: the book is both for something and against something. Just as Brackenridge used negative and positive popularity in narrative episodes and Platonic dialogues in order to convince readers to select a middle course between extremes, so too, in the book as a whole, he offers alternatives to the three major literary preoccupations of the day: the classical epics of the Connecticut Wits, sentimental novels by and for women, and the Gothic novels, both imported and domestic. Expressed predominantly in a satiric mode, Modern Chivalry can safely be called a picaresque anatomy which promotes democratic ideals by satirizing the extremes which threaten them.

The apparent formlessness of Modern Chivalry, so disturbing to novel-centered critics, is, for a satiric comic epic, quite conventional. The encyclopedic ramblings, the digressions, interruptions, and changes of pace are integral to the work as a whole. They are part of its rhythm, its medley of lessons on balance. The disorder of Modern Chivalry is functional, an ironic parallel to the disorder of the age. In the mixed dish of satire, written for "individuals of all attainments, and of all grades of intellects," variety is a necessity, and the author must appear to be improvising. The cyclical open-endedness of the book is planned and orchestrated to appeal to an audience intractable to its strictures. The "chaos" of Modern Chivalry is deliberate craftsmanship. Controlled disorder is part of its unity.

The first forty-two pages of Modern Chivalry are all of a piece, although the presentation seems casual. The themes which unify the book, introduced in these pages, are played and replayed until the lessons are subliminally fixed in the reader's mind. Brackenridge controls his "improvisations" through a pattern of suspensions and returns in which a subject is introduced, left for a time, and then returned to after several buffer chapters intervene. The digressionary material is connected thematically with what went before and what is to follow, allowing the author to play variations on a theme by alternating the serious and the comic.

Critics have been quick to notice in Brackenridge the redundancy of incident and lecture, but few have noticed that he controls and modulates the sequence in order, as he says, "not to exhaust a subject all at once, but to teach it for the present, and introduce it afterwards in a different point of view." The mixture of comedy with moral instruction is necessary because, he says, "it is only by means of amusing that I could get readers; or have an opportunity to reach the public with my lecture."

Brackenridge had to teach the moral that was being abused. He had to assert as well as ridicule. To do so he created the elusive author-narrator. Part oracle, part chorus, this narrator presents the reader a bewildering series of claims and disclaimers, denials and contradictions, but at the center he asserts and maintains a moral and ethical stability. He is the main character who, for fully half the book, occupies center stage. Brackenridge's highly original manipulation of point of view involves the reader in an ambiguous relationship with the author and intensifies the reader's participation in the comic. Superficially the comedy originates in the verbal and situational irony of Teague's efforts to rise to positions for which he is unqualified and the Captain's attempt, sometimes wise, sometimes foolish, to maintain balance. On the highest level, however, it is not Teague but those who trust him who are ridiculed. Teague is beyond redemption, a consistent fool along "humor" lines, unchanged, unchangeable. Farrago is not the simple antithesis of Teague. Teague is at home in a leveling democracy. It is Farrago who is absurd. The Captain wins occasionally, but in the end he is defeated, isolated. Brackenridge's comedy is based on misplaced balance, on incongruity, and it is Farrago, "owing perhaps to his greater knowledge of books than of the world," who is incongruous on the frontier. It is the incongruity of Farrago's behavior, not Teague's, which carries the ironic humor.

In part two, chapters of reflection become indistinguishable from the narrative because the author no longer insists on the separate identity of Farrago. The assimilation of the Captain with the personality of the narrator is nearly complete at the conclusion. The author, himself a lone classicist among backwoods democrats, claims in his last chapter "that it is not a little owing to this book ... that a very different state now exists." The irony has pathos in it. The American Yahoos are Yahoos still and the author admits that when an ambassador is sent to England "Teague may be a candidate." The final satiric cut is self-inflicted.

The satire in Modern Chivalry is predominantly Horatian, having at its core moral instruction rather than moral indignation. The saeva indignatio of Juvenal or Swift is submerged. The satirist saw more clearly that ignorance, anti-intellectualism, and demagoguery could defeat the orderly workings of the American political experiment. The nature of his audience required that he assert as well as attack, amuse in order to instruct. There is, however, a grimace behind the comic mask, an undercurrent of animus toward man's bestial nature. The equation that a man without reason is little more than a beast is introduced early and repeated more than fifty times before the end. The strongest and most complete blast at the irrationality of the public occurs at almost the exact center of the book, delivered by a madman. The attacks are paced throughout the book, building gradually, culminating in the master trope of his satire, animal sufferage.

"The human mind, from defect of attention, or incapacity, cannot be reached all at once." This statement by Brackenridge is central to an understanding of his book, its unity, and the author's artistic control of his audience and his material. His variety is his unity in both matter and method. Having been disappointed with the "honest husband man" after the failure of the United States Magazine, Brackenridge approached him a second time with satire "to revenge himself for injustice, to instruct those in error, and to relieve his oppressed mind." He designed a form uniquely suited to his purpose and his encyclopedic mind. Not even Franklin was more sensitive to the needs and limitations of the reading public than was Brackenridge.

To amuse and instruct over a span of his sprawling volumes, Brackenridge used an astonishing assemblage of masks, tones, and ironic attitudes. His major achievement is his manipulation of the reader's attention through the multiple and shifting device of the protean author-narrator. The writer announces himself a satirist before the narrative begins. The reader is put on notice early, but because the narrator and the apparent spokesman, Captain Farrago, provides a shifting, unreliable center, the reader is denied a fixed position from which to view the proceedings. Brackenridge's protean shifts of point of view, his alternation from the mask of the learned Olympian, to the backwoods Socrates, to the pragmatic attorney, to the thinly disguised voice of Farrago, keep attention focused on the issue: democracy and the need for balance, moderation, and informed judgment in the exercise of its privileges. Not only do the masks change with astonishing swiftness, but there are also subtle changes in tone within each of the masks. The author-narrator's descriptions of the reasons for writing the book recur like a motif fifty-three times. On twenty-two of these occasions he confesses a serious moral intention. Significantly less often he denies in a mock-serious tone that the book is a satire (five times); calls it an exercise in style only (seven times), a burlesque (once), an adventure narrative (four times), pure nonsense (five times), playful satire (once), and history-memoir-biography (eight times). In short, in one disguise or another, Brackenridge is constantly in touch with the reader explaining his matter and method. On one level, the author-narrator functions as a character and a "character." On another level, he is self-consciously reassuring himself and his reader that his literary schizophrenia is necessary, given his temperament, his time, and his mixed audience. The technique serves as one of several connective tissues which make Modern Chivalry a whole piece. These explanatory passages are interspersed throughout the book, complementing or contradicting one another in order to force the reader to be alert not only to the content but to the context of the explanation.

In the very beginning the author lets the reader know that his is no ordinary book. The mock seriousness of his purposes, contradicted in turn by other ironic avowals, leaves the reader only one choice: trust the author-narrator. But Proteus-like, he is not trustworthy. Brackenridge's author-narrator device allows him full play of his learning and wit, and permits him to change his mind, to adjust his attitudes toward contemporary issues as they arise over the twenty-three-year life of his open-ended dialogue.

Suspicious of extremes in art and politics, Brackenridge was an advocate for the balanced view. Like Swift, he was capable of extremes, as his angry wartime sermons against the British demonstrate. And like Swift, he maneuvers his readers into selecting the middle course by presenting mutually unacceptable alternatives. The American satirist knew well Plato 's technique of examining a question from several angles through dramatic dialogues in which different points of view are expressed by different characters. By a combination of Plato and Swift, Brackenridge sets up dynamic tensions between opposing positions, forcing the reader to take sides as the combatants argue. A common practice at this point is to have Farrago intervene, offer a moderate solution, and, it would seem, solve the reader's problem. Frequently, however, the author-narrator undercuts Farrago's credibility, leaving the ironic author-narrator the only reliable guide amid confusion. When finally the author-narrator disclaims any responsibility or any purpose other than establishing a model for perfect "stile," the reader is left to his common sense to select a moderate course, usually the only one left after the dust settles. Chapter twelve in volume four of part one shows Brackenridge's technique of dynamic balance at its best.

The effect of the dialectical method of presenting moral ethic strictures is that the reader, alert to the twists and turns of the drama, adjusts and readjusts a movable fulcrum in order to establish balance. Brackenridge, a skillful teacher, keeps his message constantly recurring throughout the length of Modern Chivalry. By frustrating the traditional relationship between author and reader, he disturbs the reader's customary stable position and thereby forces a more active involvement in the balancing act. The reader is diverted from externals by dislocations of narrative, but is denied a consistent center by the elusive maneuvers of the ironic author-narrator; thus, the recognition of the need for balance is always in the process of coming into being in the reader's mind.

Implicit in Brackenridge's advocacy of equilibrium is the belief that stasis is impossible in human affairs, especially in the political life of a democracy. The scales are constantly in need of adjustment "as it is the nature of all contraries to run to opposite extremes." Thus it is, as Wendy Martin suggests, that the form of Modern Chivalry captures "the fluidity of associative experience and life as an unbroken process." Like Tristram Shandy, the book need never end; the cycle repeats itself because folly and ignorance are never vanquished, only temporarily moderated.

In addition to the obvious tensions created by the author in dramatic scenes of mob violence or in philosophical debates such as one between Farrago and a Quaker on the question of slave holding, there is the ever-present ambiguous author-narrator. He speaks through all his characters. None, not even Farrago, has a life of his own. Mary S. Mattfield observes that in Brackenridge's alternation between irony and sincerity "extremes are reconciled and the theme of reason is reinforced."

It is perhaps symbolic that a writer whose major preoccupation was balance should also function as the most conspicuous agent for equilibrium between the two great territorial factions in America during the post-Revolutionary period, the East and West. His was the voice of moderation during the Whiskey Rebellion and the controversies over the Federal constitution and Hamilton's economic policies. He saw prophetically the gathering antagonism between East and South. He recommended that the West be encouraged to prosper and thus provide a balance between Eastern and Southern interests. No vague visionary, Brackenridge led the life he wrote about, and it is this life which supplies the robust realism which animates the whole of Modern Chivalry .

Although Brackenridge revered the classical epics, he recognized, as his contemporaries did not, that America's epic would have to be different. The new leveling democracy was committed to the common man, to the new over the old, and demanded something unheroic, a contrast epic to balance out aristocratic grandeur with democratic commonplace. "Anyone," Brackenridge averred, "can write the campaign of a great prince. But it would be greater praise to give value to the rambles of privater persons...." The wrecked epics of Timothy Dwight (1785) and Joel Barlow (1787) testified to the futility of imitating Homer's formal verse and royal characters. The new nation had no time for the "specious wonder of Olympus." Consequently, while the Connecticut Wits, whom Vernon L. Parrington characterized as the "self-satisfied embodiment of the outworn," followed classical models and failed, Brackenridge followed Fielding and gave Americans a realistic prose history of an age, his native countryside with a field full of folk.

He employed for his purpose the form of the modern novel, which, with its "supposed travels, conversations, affords great scope, and much freedom, and furnishes an opportunity to enliven with incident." Modern Chivalry has the broad sweep of an epic. It is huge, disorderly, like America. Instead of a prince whose genealogy is part of a culture's heritage, we get the Captain and the bogtrotter whose genealogies are unknown. The author admits that if he "were to imitate the action of an epic Poem" he would give the history of the Captain but he knows nothing of his hero's descent or pedigree and he can only guess at the progenitors of Teague. Contrasting his own book with the classical epic, he says, "I must omit, or rather cannot accomplish the dramatic form of the epic, but must proceed in a prosaic way...." Marder observes that "the expanded attitudes of self reflected in Modern Chivalry ... are almost parodies of Homer's heroes." The comic parodies are in keeping with the tone and intention of a contrast epic. They are vital to the nature of an alternative to the lead plated epics of Dwight and Barlow, both of which were serious to the point of dullness. The cyclical pattern of folly running to extremes followed by a temporary return to reason is repeated over and over again in Modern Chivalry and must be repeated as long as human nature is unregenerated.

The book ends on a melancholy note when the author admits that Teague will probably be successful in his quest for public office. This sober realization lends a tragic note to the comedy, universalizes the theme, and raises it above an anatomy of one phase of democracy.

Brackenridge's efforts to produce a realistic epic of the unheroic democratic man have gone unrecognized partly because of his brilliant use of the dynamics of balance. Because he so profoundly understood the precarious equilibrium of the democratic experiment, a one-dimensional representation of the common man was impossible. Crevecoeur said that the American "is a strange heterogeneous assemblage of vices and virtues, and a variety of other principles, forever at war, forever jarring, forever producing some dangerous, some distressing extreme." In its organic openendedness, Brackenridge's comic prose epic captures the ferment of vices and virtues, of conflicting ideas and manners, in a way hardly possible in the formal verse epic.

Modern Chivalry is a modern epic. To mirror the central paradox of American moral life, idealism versus opportunism, Brackenridge creates two heroes, the idealistic but ineffectual Farrago and the irresponsibly opportunistic but highly effectual Teague. Throughout Modern Chivalry the author creates disequilibrated situations and then, through counterpoised arguments or actions, returns everything again to equilibrium. He extends this technique of dynamic balance to include the two main characters, who embody and demonstrate this theme. Farrago is a cultivated gentleman, learned, with high ethical standards, but he fails in the face of practical reality. Teague is ignorant, ambitious, and confident of his ability to seize the main chance, and he succeeds more often than not. Were it not for the Captain's lies, deceptions, and scare tactics, the bogtrotter would have succeeded in almost all that he attempted. Farrago is an eighteenth-century man of reason who believes in the great chain of being, in congruity, in the eternal fitness of things. Teague, a frontier Scaramouch, is a newly enfranchised democrat, with allegiance to little more than himself and his power to rise up in the world.

Not only is Modern Chivalry antidotal to The Vision of Columbus and The Conquest of Canaan in form, but it is also a more realistic picture because it deals exclusively with the present. The recently completed Revolution is mentioned only in secondary references. His Hogarthian canvas is peopled with a profusion of one-dimensional figures who express viewpoints, then blend back into the crowd. Their behavior shows us the moral and political temper of the age. Brackenridge's epic is about and for the people. The form and content, and the realistic prose style were designed to get it into the hands of those most in need of its instruction.

For the Connecticut Wits, the permanent improvement of the human condition was possible. Brackenridge had a deeper understanding of human nature and of the true nature of the epic, demonstrating through the cyclical order of his book that all lessons must sooner or later be learned over again.

Modern Chivalry is, by degrees, antiepic, antisentimental, and anti-Gothic. It is unique and misunderstood. But if one wishes to know that inchoate period between the Revolution and the romantic period, one has to turn to Brackenridge's Chaucerian portrait of the age. No one else made just such a record. Brackenridge himself, half in jest, half in earnest, asked a question which literary historians have yet to answer: "How many are there in an age that could write such a book as this?"


Brackenridge's papers are scattered among the following institutions: Haverford College, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the American Philosophical Society, the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Library of Congress, the Boston Public Library, the New York Historical Society, the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, Princeton University, Dickinson College, and the University of Virginia.



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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200000790