The year 1992 marked the 200th publication anniversary of the first two volumes of Modern Chivalry. The anniversary passed unnoticed by most literary scholars and the general public. Interest in Hugh Henry Brackenridge and Modern Chivalry has waned in the twentieth century; the majority of his readers are law students interested in his career as lawyer, Constitutional Convention delegate for Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice. His life spans the Revolutionary and Federalist periods, and his contemporaries at Princeton were Bradford, Madison, and Philip Freneau. He served as a chaplain during the Revolutionary War, and like Thomas Paine, used his position to publish essays of encouragement to the troops. In addition, he wrote articles for the gazettes on such issues as the Whiskey Insurrection, the government’s methods of dealing with Indian treaties, Hamilton’s monetary policies, and Jeffersonian democracy. Thus, a study of his work offers students and scholars the opportunity to read about these issues as contemporary occurrences.

But Brackenridge’s texts have more than mere historical significance. As one of America’s earliest authors, he directly influences the development of American literature. His own literary influences were Lucian, Cervantes, LeSage, and Swift. Along with Rabelais and Sterne, Brackenridge credits these authors for his “inclin[ation] to an ironical, ludicrous way of thinking and writing” (Newlin 112). Modern Chivalry began as a long, hudibrastic poem in the manner of Samuel Butler entitled The Modern Chevalier. By all accounts, the poem is less noteworthy than the final novel, but it contains the seeds of what would become one of the earliest instances of burlesque and picaresque in American literature. The narrative plan is borrowed from Don Quixote and Hudibras, and uses Jonathan Swift’s alternation of philosophical commentary and narrative incident from Tale of a Tub, which Brackenridge adapted to create a realistic satire on uniquely American subjects (Newlin 115). Volume three of part one was the first American text published west of the Alleghenies. While autobiographical in many of its details, Chivalry offers a clear picture of the western counties, the difficulties of establishing settlements and a new, democratic government, and the sometimes uneasy relationship between the more cosmopolitan East and the rougher West…a dichotomy that would continue to exist well into the nineteenth century and beyond.

Although Brackenridge’s colleagues at Princeton thought of him as a man of genius and intellect, he often alienated his contemporaries. As a man of strong convictions he sometimes found himself in direct opposition to contemporaneous politicians, journalists and author/philosophers such as Thomas Paine, William Findley, and Thomas Jefferson; and his outspokenness on political and social issues made enemies that later thwarted his own political career. Modern Chivalry satirizes Findley, William Cobbett and J. Thompson Callender, among other then-current public figures. Through the characters of Captain John Farrago and Teague O’Regan, Brackenridge burlesques Western journalism, politics, electioneering, dueling and other social issues.

After publishing each of the volumes of parts one and two separately, Brackenridge edited and revised the work for a novel edition in 1815. The last authoritative edition of the text was published in 1819, three years after his death. The revisions Brackenridge made for the 1815 and 1819 editions indicate that Brackenridge had a different vision for the novel form. Besides streamlining the text and editing out sentences or even chapters for redundancy, many of the chapters are consolidated and rearranged for a more logical presentation and in order to keep like material, which had often been spread across volumes in the original work, together. Some philosophical commentary has been deleted, and several notable changes in word choices indicate his intention of appealing to a more intellectual audience with the novel—such as editing out any references to God or informal exclamations for more sophisticated language. The original serial edition was an eclectic collection of prose and verse, quotations from classical histories like Thucydides and Lucian and snippets of contemporary poetry, as well as the author’s own poetic efforts. While the novel editions still contain a great deal of this material, many of his longer efforts-- like the 60-page hudibrastic verse that began volume three of part one—have been deleted.

Neither Brackenridge nor Modern Chivalry have been the subject of extensive study in the last 75 years, possibly because good editions of the text have been difficult or impossible to find. The most recent edition (now out of print) contained only part one, and the Claude Newlin edition, used as the copy text for this web version, was first published in 1937. For more detailed information about the life and works of H.H. Brackenridge, I recommend Claude Newlin’s extensive introduction to the 1937 edition, as well as his biography, The Life and Writings of Hugh Henry Brackenridge, published in 1932. The biography contains information gleaned from archival records, Brackenridges other publications, and information from letters and biographies of his famous contemporaries that shed light both on the times and on Brackenridge himself through the eyes of his contemporaries. His son, Henry Marie Brackenridge, also wrote a biography of his father from which Newlin freely quotes. This text would be another good starting point for Brackenridge scholars. Daniel Marder’s Twayne series biography is another good place to start, although it contains more general information, and less detail than either of the other two.