This essay investigates an early instance of “network theory” in order to argue that such theories did not, as most scholars suggest, emerge exclusively in the digital age. Charles Brockden Brown's Arthur Mervyn (1799–1800) attempts to theorize the information networks of the early American republic by comparing the spread of information to the spread of yellow fever. Unlike other novels that focus on the spread of contagious disease (such as Dickens's Bleak House), Arthur Mervyn refuses to trace a clear path of transmission from person to person. Instead, the randomness of the fever's spread gives Brown a stark, dramatic way of visualizing the unpredictability built into all such chains of transmission. Rather than a mark of nostalgia for an earlier age of “face-to-face” communication, this interest in casual and ephemeral channels of communication (and indifference to print) is a mark of the text's modernity. What Brown recognizes in his analysis of emergent networks is the power of the city to reorder social connection, enabling individuals to bypass official sources of information, play a role in the process of transmission, and become (often unwitting) participants in a transformed public sphere. In Arthur Mervyn, the yellow fever epidemic works as a fantasy of exposure, an impossible kind of social transparency that ultimately serves as a map for comprehending the mysterious workings of a “connected age.”

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