Cold Winter of 1789 Births America’s First Novel

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In the icy grips of the winter of 1789, as the echoes of George Washington’s electoral victory still resonated throughout the young nation, a mysterious but significant event transpired. Far away from the pomp and circumstance of government, a Boston printer, Isaiah Thomas & Company, published a book titled “The Power of Sympathy,” penned by the less-than-well-known William Hill Brown. This unassuming event went on to lay the cornerstone for an American institution; the birth of the first American novel.

Intertwining the bittersweet tale of two young lovers from New England, the novel – barely more than mere 100 pages – is propelled toward a stark revelation that abruptly dissolves the couple’s romance. Detonating the shock value, the characters learn a dreadful secret that renders their love untenable. The dedication page of this unassuming novella, addressed to the “Young Ladies of United Columbia” encapsulates a cautionary tale against “the fatal consequences of Seduction” while also exploring the mysterious “Economy of Human Life.”

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Despite its monumental significance, this literary event went largely unnoticed, ignored by society outside of Boston. As David Lawrimore, a respected associate professor of English at the University of Idaho reflects, “If you picked 10 random citizens, I doubt it would have mattered to any of them. Most people weren’t thinking about the first American novel.”

Cloaked under the subtitle “The Triumph of Nature. Founded in Truth,” Brown’s revolutionary novel encompassed many elements of the period, from the epistolary format, Anglicized prose, and the anonymous authorship to the overtly pious message it conveyed. At the same time, “The Power of Sympathy” oscillated around themes that reflected the nascent aspirations and deep-seated anxieties of a country in its infancy.

Among the novel’s more philosophical threads, assistant professor of English at Holy Family University, Dana McClain, emphasizes the reflections on class, temperament, and geographical disparities, particularly the “aristocratic temper” of Southern slave holders, foreshadowing the impending conflict of the Civil War.

While novels might be seen as vehicles for entertainment or social commentary, for “The Power of Sympathy” the goal was to be both a moral compass and antidote for societal decay. It worried about the disruptive “power of pleasure” in society, and women’s envy, equating virtue with a “mighty river” that enriches the land it traverses, swelling to a monumental crescendo before discharging into the ocean.

The novel went largely neglected until the late 1800s, when the truth of its authorship was revealed – Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton, a Boston poet, was falsely attributed as the author due to her family’s direct correlation to the scandalous narrative. This misjudgment was vindicated by Brown’s niece Rebecca Vollentine Thompson, in a correction note published by Arthur W. Brayley, then-editor of the Bostonian magazine.

Brown—the son of a clockmaker, believed to be born in Boston in 1765—was a cultured, politically minded conservative, known to scribe about contemporary events, including a disparaging poem about Daniel Shays’s rebellion. Despite being considered the first American novelist, Brown died young, at a mere 30, in North Carolina, supposedly of malaria leaving behind no evident direct lineage or memorials in his honor. His novel, still in print today, serves more as a historical artifact than a piece of contemporary literature, resonating most with specialists and antiquarians.