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Title: Blog by Novelist William S. Frankl, MD

Edgar Huntly

When I finally finished reading Edgar Huntly, by Charles Brockden Brown, I sighed, shrugged, and threw the book halfway across the room–– a tough and aggravating book, filled with archaic language, recurrent loss of focus due to shifting points of view, and annoying repetitiveness.
Nevertheless, Edgar Huntly is important as one of America’s first Gothic novels. It was published in 1799, right here in Philadelphia.
The one episode that seemed most important to me occurred in the last section of the book, extending from the end of Chapter 23 to the end of Chapter 26 (pages 227-259). Here the many disjointed elements of the story were finally clarified by the surgeon, Sarsefield in his encounter with Huntly. Sarsefield was mentioned only in passing early in the novel.However, in this last third of the book, he served as a bridge between himself, Huntly, the depraved Clithero, the somnobolistic ramblings of Huntly, the loss of Waldegrave’s papers, and certain elements in Huntly’s many travails. However, most revealing in this section was the illumination of Sarsefield’s character. I found him to be a cold, unpleasant, and somewhat sinister figure, a kind of eminence gris, which added to the darkness of the novel.
Did Sarsefield secretly wish to kill Huntly?: “Thirty bullets were aimed at your head, by marks-men celebrated for the exactness of their sight. I myself was of the number, and I never missed what I desire to hit.” (page 233).
His excuse for leaving Huntly for dead and instead turning his attention to the girl that Huntly had saved was absurd: “My acquaintance with wounds would have taught me to regard sunken muscles, lividness and cessation of the pulse as mere indications of a swoon, and not as tokens of death”(page 246).
His apparent inability to recognize Huntly as the body on the ledge was unconvincing: “I marked the appearance of some one stretched upon the ground where you lay. No domestic animal would wander hither and place himself upon this spot. There was something likewise in the appearance of the object that bespoke it to be man, but if it were man, it was, incontrovertibly, a savage and a foe. I determined therefore to rouse you by a bullet.” (page 248).
And finally: “Instead of recognizing and affording you relief, I compelled you to leap into the river, from a perilous height, and had desisted from my persecution only when I had bereaved you of life, and plunged you to the bottom of the gulf.”( Page 249)
Sarsefield protested too much, trying, I think inadequately to explain his role in almost killing Huntly. And later he demonstrated his cold and unpleasant nature by refusing to provide medical care to Clithero, and his dismissal of Huntly at the end via a letter, with the last cold, dismissive word, “Farewell.”
The novel does provide a vivid portrayal of life in late 17th century America–––– the forbidding wilderness, the ever-present danger of Indian attacks, the perilous economic status of many of the people, the lack of roads, and the vast distances between the homes and farms of the colonists. This difficult, dangerous, often uncharted milieu was frequently transformative––– allowing some men, like Huntly, to become unrecognizable sub-human creatures. This was vividly and poignantly described in a physical depiction of him that, in a sense, served as a metaphor for all of Huntly’s bloody experiences and his degradation:
“I could not but reflect on the effect which my appearance would produce upon the family. The sleek locks, neat apparel, pacific guise, sobriety and gentleness of aspect by which I was customarily distinguished, would in vain be sought in the apparition which would now present itself before them. My legs, neck and bosom were bare, and their native hue were exchanged for the livid marks of bruises and scarrifications. An horrid scar upon my cheek, and my uncombed locks; hollow eyes, made ghastly by abstinence and cold, and the ruthless passions of which my mind had been the theatre, added to the musquet which I carried in my hand, would prepossess them with the notion of a maniac or ruffian”( page 227).

The book provides lots of terror, but not much horror, in a dark, dreary, unpleasant, and sometimes gory picture of life in colonial America. It’s difficult to read, but worth the effort.

2 Responses to “Edgar Huntly”

  1. DAN GARSHMAN Says:

    NOT ONLY IS BILL FRANKL AN EXCELLENT WRITER, BUT NOW HIS BLOGS HAS GIVEN GREATER INSIGHT TO THOSE OF US WHO ENJOY INTELLIGENT COMMENTARY ON SOME OF THE CLASSIC BOOKS

  2. EsseryGlype Says:

    Hi, cool site, good writing 😉

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