The First American Novel
January 21, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
The Power of Sympathy turns 226.
William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature was published 226 years ago today, in 1789. It’s generally considered the first American novel, though you won’t find it on many (any?) short lists for the Great American Novel. To speak with the kind of prudence it so sternly advocates: the passing centuries have hidden its charms.
An epistolary novel in the style of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, The Power of Sympathy tells the story of Thomas Harrington, a New Englander who has fallen, against his father’s wishes, for a woman named Harriot. He dearly yearns for Harriot as his mistress: “Shall we not,” he asks her, “obey the dictates of nature, rather than confine ourselves to the forced, unnatural rules of—and—and shall the halcyon days of youth slip through our fingers unenjoyed?” (Actually, Harrington says all of this with “the language of the eyes.” Early Americans excelled, you see, at conducting complicated conversations using only their peepers.)
Thomas’s friend Worthy urges him to marry the girl, rather than simply miring himself in licentiousness, and so the pair fall deeply in love; they’re soon engaged. But Thomas’s father does not receive the news well, and for good reason: Harriot is his illegitimate daughter, and now the secret must come out to protect his son’s honor. “He is now even upon the point of marrying—shall I proceed!—of marrying his Sister!” the father writes. “I fly to prevent incest!”
Maybe had he flown earlier, instead of pausing to write a letter to his minister about it, things would’ve turned out differently—we’ll never know. In any case, the lovers are understandably distraught, on the eve of their wedding day, to learn of their unwitting incest. They terminate the betrothal posthaste. Harriot, laid low by grief, succumbs to consumption, but not before unburdening herself thus:
How fleeting have been the days … when anticipation threw open the gates of happiness, and we vainly contemplated the approach of bliss … when we beheld in the magick mirrour of futurity, the lively group of loves that sport in the train of joy. We observed in transports of delight the dear delusion, and saw them, as it were, in bodily form pass in review before us … We were happy in idea, nor was the reality far behind. And why is the vision vanished ? O ! I sink, I die, when I reflect—when I find in my Harrington a brother—I am penetrated with inexpressible grief—I experience uncommon sensations—I start with horrour at the idea of incest—of ruin—of perdition.
Disconsolate, Thomas decides “to quit this life” and—after about a dozen letters to Worthy saying he’s really going to do it any day now, the pain is unendurable, life is just a maze of suffering, et cetera, et cetera—he shoots himself. He’s found “wheltering in his blood” with a copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther at his side.
The Power of Sympathy is a sentimental novel in the strictest sense of the term: a kind of humanistic endeavor to evoke emotions in readers, giving them models on which to base their own emotional lives. It was crucial, in the second half of the eighteenth century, to allow yourself to be whipped into an emotional lather—showing your feelings was a mark of character.
So The Power of Sympathy is full of character, by that standard and perhaps that standard alone. Critics have read it as an allegory of the nascent United States, helping to reinforce the caution and virtue that would best serve the young nation. Certainly it wears its heart on its sleeve—its preface reads, “Intended to represent the specious causes, and to Expose the fatal CONSEQUENCES, of SEDUCTION; To inspire the Female Mind With a Principle of Self Complacency, and to Promote the Economy of Human Life.” It’s important to sympathize, the novel tells us—but be rational about it.
In part, though, Brown must have aimed to titillate. He published the novel anonymously—a curious choice, since his only supposed ambition was moral didacticism. Surely it was a great thrill for his readers to find themselves in such proximity to incest, that taboo of taboos. To add to the sex appeal, Sympathy was “based on true events,” as a film adaptation might say: around the same time, two of Brown’s neighbors had been embroiled in a nearly identical scandal.
Still, Sympathy fascinates because it’s so purely the product of a historical moment: in 1789, literacy was on the rise and the business of publishing, especially newspaper publishing, was coming into its own. Letter writing was increasingly popular—the medium of the written word felt more democratic than ever before. The country was new and hungry for stories about itself; what we think of as the American character had yet to be minted. Beneath Sympathy’s many layers of mawkishness, there are some uniquely American details—lavish descriptions of the Rhode Island (“Rhodeisland”) greenery, for instance, and a surprisingly frank discussion of the South’s culture of slavery.
Mainly, though, it’s full of lines like these:
How opposite are the pursuits and rewards of her who participates in every rational enjoyment of life, without mixing in those scenes of indiscretion which give pain on recollection!—Whose chymical genius leads her to extract the poison from the most luxuriant flowers, and to draw honey even from the weeds of society. She mixes with the world seemingly indiscriminately—and because she would secure to herself that satisfaction which arises from a consciousness of acting right, she views her conduct with an eye of scrutiny. Though her temper is free and unrestrained, her heart is previously secured by the precepts of prudence—for prudence is but another name for virtue. Her manners are unruffled, and her disposition calm, temperate and dispassionate, however she may be surrounded by the temptations of the world. Adieu!
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.