The City as Labyrinth: Brown’s Arthur Mervyn

If we’re talking Philadelphia Gothic, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Charles Brockden Brown’s other 1799 novel, Arthur Mervyn.  While Edgar Huntly skirts the city boundaries, this one plunges you right into the nightmare of its urban setting.  Philadelphia becomes a labyrinth of terror as an outbreak of yellow fever spreads among the inhabitants.

Brown knows the city well, as he lived on Second Street, about a mile from Broad Street and what was then the edge of the city.  The yellow fever plague is itself based on fact; an outbreak swept the city in 1793.

Using the PhilaGeoHistory map overlay, it’s possible to get an idea of the city’s layout, and actually trace Arthur’s walk from the bridge over the Schuylkill to Front Street.  It’s actually quite a hike.

I was almost unmindful of my way, when I found I had passed Schuylkill at the upper bridge. I was now within the precincts of the city, and night was hastening. It behooved me to come to a speedy decision.

Suddenly I recollected that I had not paid the customary toll at the bridge; neither had I money wherewith to pay it. A demand of payment would have suddenly arrested my progress; and so slight an incident would have precluded that wonderful destiny to which I was reserved. The obstacle that would have hindered my advance now prevented my return. Scrupulous honesty did not require me to turn back and awaken the vigilance of the toll-gatherer. I had nothing to pay, and by returning I should only double my debt. “Let it stand,” said I, “where it does. All that honour enjoins is to pay when I am able.”

I adhered to the crossways, till I reached Market Street. Night had fallen, and a triple row of lamps presented a spectacle enchanting and new. My personal cares were, for a time, lost in the tumultuous sensations with which I was now engrossed. I had never visited the city at this hour. When my last visit was paid, I was a mere child. The novelty which environed every object was, therefore, nearly absolute. I proceeded with more cautious steps, but was still absorbed in attention to passing objects. I reached the market-house, and, entering it, indulged myself in new delight and new wonder.

I need not remark that our ideas of magnificence and splendour are merely comparative; yet you may be prompted to smile when I tell you that, in walking through this avenue, I, for a moment, conceived myself transported to the hall “pendent with many a row of starry lamps and blazing crescents fed by naphtha and asphaltos.” That this transition from my homely and quiet retreat had been effected in so few hours wore the aspect of miracle or magic.

I proceeded from one of these buildings to another, till I reached their termination in Front Street. Here my progress was checked, and I sought repose to my weary limbs by seating myself on a stall.

— Charles Brockden Brown, Arthur Mervyn

If you just can’t get enough of this particular brand of Philly Gothic, Brown’s other works are worth reading as well.  Ormond uses the same 1793 yellow fever plague as a starting point, while Wieland is set on a farm on the banks of the Schuylkill River.

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