British Fiction, 18001829

NEAL, John. Brother Jonathan (1825)

Contemporary Reviews

La Belle Assemblée, 3rd ser. 2 (Aug 1825): 83.

Brother Jonathan; or, The New Englanders’—the reprint of a bonâ fide American novel—is the emanation of a vigorous and observing mind, wandering, bounding, and luxuriating amongst scenes and characters hitherto almost untouched by the pencil of imagination. The story is native—affecting—impressive; and as a vivid delineation of manners it must be regarded as of a high order. The character of Bald Eagle, the Mohawk chief, is powerfully drawn: his death-song, and departure for the world of spirits, form one of the most richly wild and poetical sketches within our recollection. We regret our want of room for analysis and extract.

Monthly Review, Appendix to 2nd ser. 107 (May-Aug 1825): 484–87.

This novel, though published in Edinburgh, is, we have reason to believe, written by an American. The success of the ‘Great Unknown’ has provoked imitation no where in such [484/485] multitudinous shapes as in the United States. The writers of that country have been repeatedly urged by the praises, or the reproaches, of each other, to the composition of fictions with American materials, upon the plan of the Waverley stories; and every month teems with these romantic creations from the trans-Atlantic press. The writers of these books avow it to be their purpose to communicate to strangers, by living pictures, a knowlege of the manners, habits, characters, and transactions of their countrymen of the present and former time. ‘Brother Jonathan’ was no doubt destined by its author to supersede any further attempt in the same department. In this work there are some traces of genius: it abounds with evidence of the author’s intimate acquaintance with the people among whom his scenes are laid. He is no common observer of the intricacies of the human mind; and he has had the opportunity of ascertaining, through the errors of his predecessors, the national faults which he had to avoid, and in what manner he would be most likely to satisfy the public expectation. Notwithstanding these advantages, however, his work, as a representation of life, is a failure. In aiming to mark out a striking story, he has produced a plot, in which the incidents are refining upon each other with such rapidity as to fall into confusion, and, consequently, to lose all interest. In endeavouring to exhibit a series of characters, which should bear no resemblance to those of any other author, and to fix upon them the impress of peculiarity, he has created men and women with sentiments and qualities which contradict each other, and even sometimes surprize by the absurdity of their combination. In his descriptions of scenery he shews an acquaintance with nature’s grandest works, and he proves that he is alive to the sublime impressions which may be received from those examples of her power which are prodigally exhibited in North America. There are a number of detached dialogues, ––sketches of character, ––and description, particularly the pathetic ones, ––which are wrought with great ability. But the general character of the style is that of exaggeration. The perpetual search for effect, the evident determination to be always striking, even in the current of ordinary narrative, involve the writer in the mistake that he can attain both the one and the other, by imposing on himself and his personages the task of talking only in epigrams. The story is sufficiently intricate, and by no means engaging. The family of Abraham Harwood, a Yankee Presbyterian preacher, are living at Connecticut, and there we are introduced to a mysterious stranger, Jonathan Peters. Walter Harwood, the hero, is a very young boy at the open-[485/486]ing of the novel, but we soon find him possessed of astonishing powers of observation. His mind is adventurous; and he cannot brook the solitude of home, although his cousin, Edith Cummin, a singularly wild, bewitching Virginian girl, inhabits the same house with him, and is calculated to bind him there with the spell of her mind and beauty.

Walter must seek his fortune: the times are full of trouble; the spirit of revolution is bracing the Americans for the contest which afterwards ensues; the adventurer, under pretence of speculating upon a mercantile situation, proceeds to New York. The journey to that city is the most amusing part of the tale. Walter having arrived at the inn, throws himself on a bed, and is musing in the deepest thought, when in comes the waiter:

‘ “Well! if that ain’t what I call pootty consider’ble hansum, o’ you!” quoth somebody, in Walter Harwood’s hearing. ––He lifted his head, not a little amazed, on perceiving the daylight. ––“Halloo!” cried he ––“who are you? what do you want; ––hey?”

‘ “Do you take an’ sleep in your shoes, mister, pretty generally speakin’?”

‘ “Bless my heart!” said our hero; jumping up ––staring about ––and rubbing his eyes; ––“why! ––what ––hey? ––sure enough. ––Who the devil are you? ––who’s been a-dressing me!”

‘ “Haw! haw! haw! ––Been a-keepin’ it up, I guess ––tipsy, a few, yit ––if he ain’t; why!”

‘Walter soon discovered how it was. He had fallen asleep, undressing ––sound asleep ––and had been diligently occupied, about four or five hours, in dreaming, that, for the soul of him, tired as he was ––there was no getting a nap, in that noisy town of New York.

‘There were some six or eight beds in the same apartment, most of which began to heave in the new sunshine, with unequivocal symptoms of animation. A great bell rang, below; and, immediately, the room was over-peopled with prodigious country merchants; teamsters, and odd-looking fellows ––among whom were a parcel of retail shopkeepers; ––all employed in greasing their wigs ––turning their cravats ––tucking in their dirty collars ––or coaxing on their torn stockings. He was greatly amused.

‘Some, he found, wore collars without shirts; a few, to his astonishment, shirts without collars ––or bodies. Was the cravat very dirty, on one side? ––it was turned: on both sides? a new arrangement of the folding was made. Were the collars pretty clean ––they were worn out ––out ––out ––up to the very temples; as far as they would go, in the shape of a collar: dirty? ––they were pulled in ––reefed ––by little and little ––inch by inch ––line by line, till they were extinct. Was the waistcoat without a button? ––it was pinned below; and left open, at the breast, with a foppish air of indifference to health, and cold [486/487] weather. So, too, if there were any ruffles, or a brooch, to be shown; ––every thing ––decency ––comfort ––every thing gave way to it. Was the collar quite ragged? ––it was turned carelessly down: ––was the bottom ragged? ––it was turned carefully up. Some two or three had pocket-handkerchiefs ––they, of course, were put into their bosoms, or left hanging out, so as to be visible. Some had neither shirt, nor ruffles ––brooch, nor waistcoat: ––of course their coats were always buttoned, bravely up ––up to the very chin. All were uncleanly ––beastly ––combing their long hair with their fingers, and thumbs; sopping their faces, one after another ––it made him sick ––with a towel; ––and, what was worse, with one and the same towel. Only one or two had shaved; ––and, out of six or eight, who made use of the public tooth-brush, only one used it, as if he knew what it was for ––and he was laughed at, for his foppery, by all the rest.’

Walter was in love with Edith Cummin, but, unable to resist the temptations of a city, he is soon led to follow other fancies. In process of time, his taste for adventure leads him to take the field in the ranks under Washington. He witnesses, during his short period of military service, nothing but disaster and almost disgrace to the swords of his compatriots; and, after going through as much distress and danger as would make the fortune of any hero in the world, he is finally restored to Edith and his home. This, which is the leading story of the novel, is interwoven with an underplot, which affords some amusing scenes: but, as we before observed, the facts are unnecessarily complicated, and the denouement excites neither surprize nor satisfaction. There is a variety of characters interspersed through the volumes, which demand no particular notice: of these, Bald Eagle is the best drawn; the character of the Yankee Winslow is also well sustained. The work displays a vigorous mind, and an ardent fancy: but these advantages are almost neutralized by a degree of affectation that has the effect of distorting almost every thing which it touches.

Notes: Listed under ‘Monthly Catalogue: Foreign Literature’. Format: 3 vols 8vo; no price. Publisher: Blackwood.

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