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Wieland; or the Transformation and Memoirs of Carwin, The Biloquist (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – April 15, 2009
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About the Author
Emory Elliot is Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside - and the author of numerous publications on the Colonial American period and on Puritan Literature.
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Ventriloquism exists as a plot device in "Wieland". While it goes beyond simplistic use, it is nevertheless awfully contrived. Clara Wieland can be thought of as Brown's ventriloquistic voice. Brown, like Carwin, speaks using Clara's voice. It has been suggested that Carwin's confession of his ventriloquism can be equated with Brown's attempt to speak with Clara's voice. When Carwin says, "I exerted all my powers to imitate your voice, your general sentiments, and your language" (p. 240), it can be read that Brown himself has been attempting as an author to speak using a female voice. Seeing ventriloquism as a metaphor in "Wieland" reaches a tired deeper truth: that things may not be as they appear, and genuine truth must be actively sought. Whoopee.
Written in 1798, Wieland is a most intriguing and passionate account of strange and deadly events in the family of Clara, an intelligent and perceptive young lady who is telling the story in a letter to a friend. As a participant in the tragedy, she would automatically be suspected of being an unreliable narrator. She even says, "What but ambiguities, abruptnesses, and dark transitions, can be expected from the historian who is, at the same time, the sufferer of these disasters?" Included in her "letter" are two even more suspect accounts, being told second hand, explanatory of the mysterious happenings. We are purposefully left a bit unsure about whether events are explainable, of supernatural origin, or a product of a diseased mind---or a combination of all three.
Included in the catalog of bizarre happenings: a spontaneous combustion, apparently disembodied voices heard by several participants, and the murder of his entire family by a father. Ventriloquism and a suggestion of mesmerism also figure into the inventive plot. The psychological aspect must have been especially innovative at the time, examining as it does a man who truly believes that he has received commands from God to sacrifice his loved ones.
Brown has included more here than just a suspenseful story. The novel also cautions about the perils of religious fanaticism, as well as the perils of trusting entirely to one's senses.
This novel will be slow at times for a modern reader, as is common for the writing of the time. But when Brown gets going on actual events, he really gets going. If the reader will read slowly, re-reading as necessary, the tension and suspense is equivalent to watching the movie Psycho, for example. Recommended. It beats the heck out of James Fenimore Cooper.
As a work of horror fiction, it does have some genuinely creepy moments here and there, and plenty of suspense, but to me at least, it satisfies much more as a kind of "cozy" rural mystery. There's also some romance thrown in toward the middle. "Wieland" does grab you eventually, and it has a thick atmosphere of Gothic doom over the characters, but from a source that stays well-hidden until the end.
I have to agree with the prime criticisms thrown at this book; that the explanations given for the events were essentially too far flung, too amazing to be believed. I would also say that more of a tie should have been made between the prelude about the father and the later events that happen to his son and daughter. I would recommend this book only to those who are truly committed to reading older Gothic tales, or what some consider "America's earliest novel."