decipi frons prima multos

Never judge a book by its cover. This popularly overused proverb never ceases to lose its relevance; it is, indeed, hard to argue against. Appearances often can be deceiving. Can anyone claim that when meeting new people he/she does not pay attention to their appearances and the notorious ‘social status’? Everyone has a snapshot evaluation instinct. Nonetheless, many try to argue that they do not take this into account.

Physiognomy, the assessment of one’s personality or moral characteristic by appearance, is a recurring topic throughout the novel. Physiognomy grew popular throughout the 18th and the 19th century and was even discussed seriously in the academics. From the beginning of the novel, an application of physiognomy made Doctor Stevens decide to rescue Mervyn.

Stevens’ physical description of Mervyn, and in particular his “youth, unspoiled…uninured”, allow us to justify the “claim to affection”, on a physiognomic level. Based on his clothing alone, Stevens is able to infer a ‘manlike beauty…so powerful’, he can make definitive statements about Mervyn’s fortunes and ‘misfortunes’. The sense of innocence of character that Stevens acknowledges even before conversing with Mervyn illustrates this physiognomic attitude of the era.

Mervyn is not an exception to applying these norms. However, he goes further, metamorphosing outward-in; his personality, thoughts and beliefs evolve with each new facade. After going through his own Welbeck-endorsed transformation, Mervyn is in fact committing his ‘original sin’ in the book. The initial exterior transformation soon enough develops into the interior transformation, or perhaps self-reconstruction. To put in more metaphorical terms, Mervyn initially wears a Mask, and he becomes the Mask itself.

I was now conscious of a revolution in my mind. […] Subsequent incidents, perhaps, joined with the influence of meditation, had generated new views. On my first visit to the city, I had met with nothing but scenes of folly, depravity, and cunning […] but my second visit produced somewhat different impressions…[I met] beings  who inspired veneration […] If cities are the chosen cities of misery and vice, they are […] the soil of  all the laudable and strenuous productions of the mind. (Brown, 221)

Mervyn, however, is not the only person to transform, or seem to transform. He too commits the error of misjudging someone based on their physical appearance and endowments, on several occasions. Priding himself on his superior analytical and deductive abilities, and taking into consideration his antiestablishmentarian stance (with regards to gender roles especially), it is thus notable that he falls into the trap of stereotype. This is particularly acute with the curious case of Eliza Hadwin. Mervyn comments:

Her total inexperience gave her sometimes the appearance of folly […] Ah! thought I, sweet, artless, and simple girl![ …] the extreme youth, rustic simplicity and mental imperfections of Eliza Hadwin (Brown,  215, 221)

 Upon Eliza demonstrating a mental proficiency at par with Mervyn’s, he remarks,

I was suprized[…]I had certainly considered her sex unfitting[…]I could not deny, that human ignorance was curable by the same means in one sex as in the other (Brown 224)

Be it by sex, by clothing, by class, by appearance, eloquence or education, and through the character of Welbeck, Brown goes to lengths to show that people aren’t always who they seem to be, and that intuitively, there is something we can gain, and a lot we lose, when we use physiognomy.

By: Suel, Kee, and Kefa


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  1. You focus on the appearance of people and the judgments aka impressions we form of a person based on their appearance.
    In this relation, I believe it is also important to mention the topic of the Blacks.
    The novel is highly dominated by white characters, only rarely is a black person mentioned and even if so, Mervyn seems to restrict his descriptive tendencies. By portraying these black characters in roles such as servants, he seems to be assuming a certain impression by the reader simply by the skin color of the character. It is almost as if the appearance of ‘black’ for him has enough descriptive character and does not need to be described in detail like many of the white characters.
    Being set in America at the end of the 1700s, the novel draws direct connections to the Race Issue and the Physiognomy of dark skinned people during this time period.

    • While you are right that the main characters are white, and that blacks take on subservient roles in the text; I fail to understand your issue with that, considering the context. Black people were servants at best in that time, and didn’t really play a leading part in upper society and mercantile trade at the time. You are completely correct in your assesment that an assumption is made with regards to the impression readers are ‘expected’ to make. However, I don’t see that as a problem at all. Written in 1790’s USA, it’s unfair to criticise Brown for not considering that 220 years in the future, audiences could actually care what black people thought or looked like. Frankly, that wasn’t a concern really, and even in the course of the novel, the main characters’ personal interactions with black people is so limited and peripheral, there is no “need” to bother describing them. At the time, as far as I know, it was a safe assumption to make that a black person was a servant at most. The political/ethical centre of the period does not align with today’s, where that would be regarded as discriminatory, as you assert. In a novel whose main actors are white, why would it matter that black people are not described with the same detail?

  2. An interesting observation by Mervyn is when he has boarded the stage-coach and is watching the monkey and its handler. Mervyn says he “took exact account of the features, proportions, looks, and gestures of the monkey”, reminiscent of the sort of physiognomy that characters have been playing with throughout the novel. In the notes on this section, however, it is said that the monkey may be meant to represent the island of Saint Domingo and the slave revolts happening there. Mervyn’s sympathetic consideration of the monkey then could also be paralleling his attitudes towards slavery and people of color, as he has now entered territory where slavery is legal.

  3. I’m curious to hear responses from Caroline and Connor to Kefa’s comment, but I’ll also throw out a small middle ground, or perhaps some additional context. Race, and the role of black Philadelphians, was very much part of the fever debates of the 1790s. Kefa’s right, in a sense, that Brown’s black characters are marginal in ways that might not be discriminatory, but I think Connor and Caroline are also right to point out that 1) they do exist in the novel, if only on margins, and 2) they appear in ways that may be important to understanding the novel as a whole. The passage I had you all explicate last week, in which Mervyn surveys himself in the mirror and comments on the transformation he’s undergone, ends with a black servant calling him to breakfast. The stagecoach scene introduces black characters in ways that may invoke the Haitian revolution, very much on the minds of Americans in the 1790s.

    Are these portraits racist/discriminatory? Probably in some sense, given the period in which they were written. But maybe a better question is: how do they work? In the mirror scene, the sudden appearance of the black servant calls into question Mervyn’s assumptions about dress and social advantage: certainly black and white house servants were at times given very fine clothing, depending on their station. Did that make them upwardly mobile as Mervyn pines to be? We’ll talk more about the stagecoach scene later.

    Here’s a set of resources on black Philadelphians during the 1793 epidemic if you’re interested. Here’s Jones and Allen’s defense of the black community. And here’s a brief overview of the 1793 epidemic that includes some commentary on ways in which race figured in public discourse.

    • While it is important to keep in mind Kefa’s comment about historical context of the era, I agree with Caroline that Mervyn’s descriptions of black people are too simple to the point that they are slightly discriminatory. Mervyn throughout the novel gives us thorough description of what he sees. His judgement is greatly affected by appearance and physiognomy, and I would say his near-obsession of judging people by their looks is his own way of protecting and defending himself in the time of the plague, when interactions among people accompany danger. By looking at their faces, Mervyn discerns a person’s trustworthiness or social status. When he sees black people, however, he does not care to use his physiognomy-based judgements. Their behaviors, names or dresses are rarely mentioned.

  4. In class today, we made a list of patterns that are prevalent in the novel, some of which include racial differences, hierarchy classifications, and the (un)reliability of the narrator. In relation to the topic of physiognomy, these patterns are somehow intertwined. Just as Caroline connected physiognomy with racial differences and Connor physiognomy with hierarchy classifications, I would like to comment on the relationship between physiognomy in the novel and the unreliability of Arthur Mervyn.

    At the start of the chapter 2 (which is the passage I have chosen to write about), Stevens questions himself on whether he should trust Arthur Mervyn’s story. He then concludes that, “had [he] heard Mervyn’s story from another, or read it in a book, [he], might, perhaps, have found it possible to suspect the truth; but, as long as the impression, made by [Mervyn’s] tones, gestures, and looks, remained in [his] memory, this suspicion was impossible”.

    In this extract, in my opinion, it is as if Brown is implicitly shedding light upon the unreliability of Mervyn since we, the readers, are actually “hearing Mervyn’s story from another” (Stevens) and are actually “reading it in a book”. In other words, Brown insists that we suspect the truth. If it is indeed true that the character is unreliable, then Steven’s judgment of Mervyn according to his physiognomy is incorrect, thereby concluding that appearances can be deceiving.

  5. In response to Kefa’s comment, I actually do believe that the portraits of the blacks are discriminatory, whether such portraits are regular throughout the novel or simply occur in certain situations. One of these instances are depicted in chapter 18, when Mervyn visits the Maurices. Mrs. Maurice addresses one of the black servants in a very disrespectful manner and calling her a series of names: “Where’s Polly, you slut?”
    “It was not you, hussey, that I wanted. It was her.”
    (Two short sentences after) “Hay! fool! Run with my compliments to him, wench.”
    (Two short sentences after) “Who then, sauce box?”
    (Two short sentences after) “Who said you did, impertinence?”

  6. Page 76 of Revising Charles Brockden Brown: Culture, Politics, and Sexuality in the Early Republic discusses possible racial implications found in Arthur Mervyn. I’m not sure how to hyperlink text in a comment, so here is the link (I apologize for not making it pretty!):

  7. I like that reading of the stagecoach scene & questions of race, Diana. I have the book in my office and will photocopy those pages so we can talk abt Goudie’s reading in class tomorrow.

  8. “There is a great difference between a natural man living in a state of nature and a natural man living in society. Emile is no savage to be banished to the desert; he is a savage made to live in cities. He must know how to make his living there, how to make the best of its inhabitants, and how to live if not like them at least with them.”
    Rousseau’s ‘Emile, ou l’education’

    It is perhaps ironic, yet only towards the end of the book I realized the monumental ‘fingerprint’ of Rousseau’s on Brown throughout the whole piece. Rousseau’s masterpiece, “Emile, or on education” was published 37 years ago before Brown got to publish ‘Arthur Mervyn.’ The main idea – that in fact was revolutionary at its time – being pushed by Rousseau in his book, is the transition from so-called ‘amour de soi’ to ‘amour propre’ i.e. to put it harshly, gradual transformation from beast into citizen of any man born. The irony is that, while Rousseau propagandizes this transformation, perhaps as the ideological basis for not-yet-introduced ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ – Brown seems to make fun of much-awaited birth of ‘citizen’ while, as he argues, ‘city’ itself is plagued from its very foundation.

  9. Aside from (and prior to) William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, Rousseau was one of Brown’s formative influences, and I think you’ve really put your finger on something here. You’re right that the city is plagued in Arthur Mervyn — but is it beyond redemption? Remember Arthur’s impulse to clean up Bush Hill — is he a sanitation reformer in training?

    Here’s a classic essay on Arthur Mervyn that nods toward Rousseau’s influence: There’s a lot more that could be said about that, though.

    It’s also worth asking about Arthur’s impulse to reconstruct a family at the novel’s close: could that little set of elective affinities have been possible without an urban setting?

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