Novelty in the Novel

In 1789, printer Isaiah Thomas published what he advertised as the “First American Novel,” and William Hill Brown’s Power of Sympathy arrived on the American landscape just two months shy of the beginning of constitutional governance in America. The novel arrived during a time of deep reflection in the new nation, a time when the main topic of the day was how to be appropriately American.

These conversations would be printed and distributed in the form of pamphlets, articles, and tracts across the former colonies, and the fiction of the day became another way to address these serious questions of identity in a perhaps more palatable way to a wider audience.

Specifically, Brown is concerned with the welfare of women in the new nation. He intends his book to serve an educational purpose to warn about the “Consequences of Seduction,” and he also looks to champion the “Advantages of FEMALE EDUCATION.”

As Brown sees it, the real danger to the new nation is what he believes are the continuous attacks on women’s virtue by unscrupulous men. He was not alone; stories about the dangers of seduction were popular during this era.

The Power of Sympathy tells the story of a young man named Harrington who falls in love with a beautiful young woman named Harriet. Written in the epistolary form—a story that is told through letters—readers immediately note that Harriet and Harrington are uncommonly connected and attracted to each other so much so that Harrington believes he has found his soul mate in Harriet.

While the Harrington/Harriet affair is traditionally the stuff of novels, their story gets pushed aside, sacrificed for Brown’s venture into the pulpit. The author includes several lengthy monologues on the importance of literacy, the novel’s job to educate, the reader’s responsibility, and the power of education or being educated.

The entirety of his instruction is premised on a primary idea: “…we judge of the happiness of others by the standard of our own conduct and prejudices.” He is not only telling us to learn about the world (through novels and literacy) but also to learn about each other, receive each other and develop sympathy, perhaps even empathy for each other. Brown uses the story of Harrington and Harriet as an example of this point.

By the end of the novel, Harrington and Harriet will have their worlds shattered because someone lacked the proper amount of sympathy and empathy for their neighbor; or rather, they related to their neighbor in an inappropriate way. I do not want to give the ending of the novel away, but Brown included in his novel a small frame story that foreshadows the ending for Harrington and Harriet.

Several months before, in 1788, Boston was rocked by a scandal that involved one of their most prominent figures. Perez Morton, Revolutionary War hero and statesman, stood accused of having an affair with his sister-in-law, Frances ‘Fanny’ Apthorp, resulting in the birth of a son. Morton, of course, denied the claims, but many in the community frankly did not believe him.

Once the scandal hit the press, it became its own beast. Letters from Fanny were printed, begging Morton to provide for their child. John Adams, future president and prominent lawyer, wrote to the Massachusetts Centinel defending Morton, claiming the allegations were false. Fanny would commit suicide by taking a lethal dose of laudanum, and her brother, Charles Apthorp, challenged Morton to a duel, which Morton managed to avoid.

William Hill Brown, a next-door neighbor to these events would use the tale of Morton and Fanny in his novel.

While visiting her friend, Mrs. Martin, Harriet hears about the sad state of affairs between Mrs. Martin and her husband. It turns out that Mr. Martin had an affair with Mrs. Martin’s sister, Ophelia, resulting in a child. While clearly subtlety was not Brown’s strong suit, he did manage to convey the wrongness of the situation, particularly, the wrongness of Mr. Martin (and by extension Mr. Morton). Brown’s sympathies appear to lie exclusively with the women. From here, you can likely guess the outcome for Harrington and Harriet.

Because of Brown’s sympathies, he focuses more on the consequences of fornication and adultery (both were crimes in the 18th century) rather than the acts themselves. Based on Brown’s emphasis on consequences, it is easy to see that he is tying individual morality to the health of the nation; that is, a nation is an accumulation of private behaviors that produce public consequences.

This was the work, the lesson, contained in the first American novel. The novel should, according to Brown, entertain and teach simultaneously. A well-written novel holds up a mirror that reflects back on the society that produces it. Perhaps when printer, Isaiah Thomas, a famous Revolutionary in his own right, advertised Brown’s work as the “First American Novel,” he did so knowing that in America, novels are not just tracts of entertainment but also social observations that capture aspects of a society or culture that are much too nuanced for politics.

In any case, if you are interested in history, definitely read the novel. There are some dry spots here and there, but it is definitely worth the read.


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