I feel little reluctance in complying with your request. You know not fully the cause of my sorrows. You are a stranger to the depth of my distresses. Hence your efforts at consolation must necessarily fail. Yet the tale that I am going to tell is not intended as a claim upon your sympathy. In the midst of my despair, I do not disdain to contribute what little I can to the benefit of mankind. I acknowledge your right to be informed of the events that have lately happened in my family. Make what use of the tale you shall think proper. If it be communicated to the world, it will inculcate the duty of avoiding deceit. It will exemplify the force of early impressions, and show, the immeasurable evils that flow from an erroneous or imperfect discipline.
My state is not destitute of tranquillity. The sentiment that dictates my feelings is not hope. Futurity has no power over my thoughts. To all that is to come I am perfectly indifferent. With regard to myself, I have nothing more to fear. Fate has done its worse. Henceforth, I am callous to misfortune. (p. 5)
Summary: The elder Wieland was a German worker who, having experienced a religious conversion, conceived a plan to preach to the American Indians. As often happens in evangelizing, he fails. He ends up in Pennsylvania where he builds a temple where he can pray. As very rarely happens in prayer, one night while praying he spontaneously combusts. He survives, but not for long, and his children, Theodore and Clara, divide the property, and make a good life for themselves. The two are close friends with another family, the Pleyels; Theodore, the younger Wieland, marries Catharine Pleyel, and Henry Pleyel often stays with them when he is not in Europe. The temple they continue to call The Temple, but they convert it to a sort of salon for art and music and conversation where the Wielands and Pleyels spend many a happy hour. Theodore and Clara carry forward much of the religious temperament of their father, while the Pleyels, particularly the skeptical Henry, are a bit more secular. Our story really begins to pick somewhere between the French-Indian Wars and the American Revolution. And if you think there might be some kind of allegory lurking in the fact that their little community grows out of a religious mission that collapses but still coheres, as a community of religious devotees and skeptical rationalists, around a humanist temple to freedom of speech just prior America becoming America -- well, you are not the only reader who has ever read it that way.
This idyllic community begins to be disrupted by strange events. Voices seem to materialize out of the air; Wieland hears them first, but even his skeptical friend Pleyel is disturbed when he begins to hear it. Clara soon begins to hear voices also. Nobody knows what to make of it. The voices tend to mimic those of people they know. This unsettles them all more and more. Soon, however, a new figure enters: Carwin, who seems more skeptical than anyone else, insisting that these things can be done by human power (and it soon becomes clear that he is somewhat mixed up with it all). But this does not settle things down at all, and eventually the community is utterly torn apart as apparent betrayal and eventual murder tears it apart.
The subtitle of the book is The Transformation, and this is really what is being tracked by the story. We start in one place: Theodore Wieland, an upstanding and very moral and decent member of an almost ideal community, religiously devout and deeply loving of his family. We end in another place: Theodore Wieland, notorious, standing trial for murder of his wife and children. How does this happen? And the story's answer is more or less what Clara says in the opening paragraph above: deceit and erroneous discipline. But it is the double-tongued Carwin who sets everything tumbling, and the novel presents him as doing so apparently for the most trivial of reasons, an almost incredible disproportion between the intended and the actual effect. But this is part of the point. The novel is intended as an exploration of the human mind in a psychological realistic way; but it does not do so by showing minds unfolding in reasonable ways in response to ordinary circumstances but by showing them unfolding in unreasonable ways in response to baffling and distressing circumstances. People often do great harm for trivial reasons; they often act extremely unreasonably when distressed; and, most importantly, they are easily deceived in any number of ways, any one of which could set them down a dangerous path.
We learn a bit more about Carwin's background, and a bit more therefore about his motives, in the fragmentary work Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist, in which we see the early Carwin caught up in a utopian vision of making the world a better place by nudging people in the right direction at the right time. It is a daydream we might all indulge at times, but Carwin's unusual skills means he can actually do it, and we can see that this utopian vision is actually a cover for a terrible temptation, although the fragment ends before we get very far. Trying to nudge people in the direction you want them to go, whether it's by exploiting their superstitions with ventriloquism or their emotions with oratory or their perception of what is going on through journalism, or whatever the mechanism may be, is an immensely dangerous thing. Sooner or later it does lead to disaster.
Favorite Passage: This is not a particularly quotable work, but there are striking passages. From Chapter XVI:
I approached the corpse: I lifted the still flexible hand, and kissed the lips which were breathless. Her flowing drapery was discomposed. I restored it to order, and seating myself on the bed, again fixed stedfast eyes upon her countenance. I cannot distinctly recollect the ruminations of that moment. I saw confusedly, but forcibly, that every hope was extinguished with the life of Catharine. All happiness and dignity must henceforth be banished from the house and name of Wieland: all that remained was to linger out in agonies a short existence; and leave to the world a monument of blasted hopes and changeable fortune. Pleyel was already lost to me; yet, while Catharine lived life was not a detestable possession: but no, severed from the companion of my infancy, the partaker of all my thoughts, my cares, and my wishes, I was like one set afloat upon a stormy sea, and hanging his safety upon a plank; night was closing upon him, and an unexpected surge had torn him from his hold and overwhelmed him forever. (p. 172)
Recomendation: Recommended. It's very readable, a little melodramatic in a potboiler kind of way, but deliberately using this as a vehicle to touch on serious problems in society.
Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist, Fliegelman, ed., Penguin Books (New York: 1991).