Brown, William Hill
William Hill Brown 1765-1793
American novelist, poet, playwright, and essayist.
Brown is best known for The Power of Sympathy: Or, the Triumph of Nature. Founded in Truth (1789), a work commonly credited as being the first American novel. Based on an infamous Boston scandal, the work is often faulted by modern scholars for its didactic narrative style and sentimentality. However, because it has the distinction of being the first book-length work written and issued in the United States, the novel has commanded critical attention since its publication. In addition, Brown's work as a poet, playwright, and essayist interested critics, although it is generally acknowledged as being of limited literary merit. In the end, most scholars concur that even if The Power of Sympathy is not included in a list of the greatest works of American fiction, the sentimental nature of the novel foreshadowed a style of writing that would remain popular in the new nation for at least the next half century.
William Hill Brown was born in Boston in 1765, the son of a prominent clockmaker. He received his education at a Boston boys' school, where his efforts at writing were encouraged by his step-aunt Catherine Byles. While living in Boston, Brown stayed directly across the street from the residence of the Anthorp-Mortons, prominent Boston families who became the nexus of a local scandal in 1788 when Frances Apthorp committed suicide after she was discovered to be having an affair with her brother-in-law, Perez Morton. The following year, Brown's The Power of Sympathy was published, its moralistic story involving an incestuous relationship clearly based on the Anthorp-Morton scandal. In 1792 Brown traveled to North Carolina to visit a sister. He stayed to study law, but died an early death the following year. Another novel, titled Ira and Isabella (1807) was published several years after his death.
During his lifetime, Brown was best known for his poetry, essays, and plays. His most popular poem, “Yankee Song,” was published in 1788, weeks after Massachusetts ratified the Federal Constitution—the poem applauded this move with its patriotic refrain from “Yankee Doodle.” In the following two years, Brown published several patriotic essays in New England magazines, followed in 1789 by verses for the libretto of The Better Sort, a comic opera. Brown also wrote a play, West Point Preserved or the Treason of Arnold, which received favorable reviews; unfortunately the text, published posthumously in 1797, is lost. In addition to his poetry and dramatic works, Brown also composed fables, which were issued posthumously by Richard Walser in a 1982 collection of Brown's poetic work entitled Selected Poems and Verse Fables, 1784-1792.
Brown's lasting fame, however, rests with his novel, The Power of Sympathy, a work he published anonymously in 1789. Written in the epistolary style of Samuel Richardson's Pamela, Brown's novel claims to be “founded in truth,” recasting the well-known Anthorp-Morton scandal in the story of a man who tries to seduce a woman who, it turns out, is his sister. The relationship ultimately does not end in incest—the woman dies, and the man commits suicide. Thematically, the work intends to show how evil can result from the power of seduction. Brown's only other novel, published posthumously in 1807, Ira and Isabella: Or the Natural Children. A Novel, Founded in Fiction, revisits many of the themes explored in The Power of Sympathy. The second novel, however, inverts many of the characteristics of the first; whereas The Power of Sympathy claimed to be based in fact, Ira and Isabella was reported to be fiction. In the second novel, incest is only avoided when, through a series of revelations, Ira and Isabella learn that they are not brother and sister, but both bastard children free to follow the path of their desire.
While Richard Walser's 1982 edition of Brown's poems and fables has attempted to resurrect interest in Brown's poetic output, most modern scholars have tended to ignore Brown's essays, plays, and poems, including his popular “Yankee Song,” often reprinted in nineteenth-century American anthologies. Critical commentary has concentrated almost exclusively on The Power of Sympathy and, to a lesser degree, on Ira and Isabella. A major controversy surrounded the authorship of Brown's first novel, which was presumed to have been written by the poet Sarah Morton. However, during the late-nineteenth century, Brown's authorship of the novel was established, based both on similarities between that work and Ira and Isabella and on eyewitness testimony. Critics have also questioned why the novel was so little known in its own day, some arguing that the book was suppressed by members of the Anthorp-Morton families or other local citizens who were embarrassed by reminders of a scandal they would have sooner seen forgotten. Others have hypothesized that the novel failed to excite popular attention due to its lack of literary merit. The bulk of recent criticism has focused on assessing the quality of the work as well as its influence on other literary works which followed. With a few exceptions, most scholars consider The Power of Sympathy a deeply flawed work. It is variously described as inept, tedious, didactic, stilted, awkward, and pretentious. Critics disagree on whether Ira and Isabella should be read as a parody of Brown's first novel or as a serious reworking of the themes of seduction and incest. Once again, Brown's writing is faulted for numerous narrative deficiencies. Regardless, Brown's The Power of Sympathy continues to elicit scholarly attention for its historical place in the evolution of American literature, especially in its relationship to the sentimental melodramas that would dominate American popular literature for much of the nineteenth century.
The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature. Founded in Truth 2 vols. (novel) 1789
The Better Sort: or, The Girl of Spirit. An Operatical, Comical Farce [librettist] (opera) 1789
West Point Preserved or the Treason of Arnold: An Historical Tragedy in Five Acts (drama) 1797
Ira and Isabella: or The Natural Children. A Novel, Founded in Fiction (novel) 1807
Selected Poems and Verse Fables, 1784-1792, [edited by Richard Walser] (poetry) 1982
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SOURCE: Ellis, Milton. “The Author of the First American Novel.” American Literature (1933): 359-68.
[In the following essay, Ellis contends that The Power of Sympathy was written by William Hill Brown, and not Sarah Morton.]
In a recently published study1 the present writer has shown, apparently to the satisfaction of those best qualified to judge, that The Power of Sympathy, the first serious attempt at novel writing produced by an American and published in the United States, was not written by the poetess Mrs. Sarah (Apthorp) Morton.2 The purpose of this paper is to consider further the claims of the only other known candidate for the doubtful honor of authorship, the minor Bostonian poet, essayist, dramatist, and fiction writer of the early 1790's, William Hill Brown.3
By way of preliminary information, The Power of Sympathy was first published, anonymously, in two small volumes, at Boston in January, 1789, by Isaiah Thomas and Company, who had hailed its appearance in extensive advertising as “the first American novel.”4 The author, in order to forestall the prejudices of his time against novel reading, both avowed a painfully evident moral purpose and supplemented his tragic tale of the effects of seduction by several illustrative examples, which form the basis of its claim to being “Founded in...
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SOURCE: McDowell, Tremaine. “The First American Novel.” American Review 2, no. 1 (November 1933): 73-81.
[In the following essay, McDowell contends that one of the main reasons Brown's The Power of Sympathy was suppressed when it was first issued was because the book offended American sensibilities in general and the community of Dorchester, Massachusetts in particular.]
On the 21st day of January in the year 1789, loyal citizens of Massachusetts had unique cause for gratification. At last, they were informed, a novel had been written and published in book form in the United States. Under the challenging heading, FIRST AMERICAN NOVEL, they found in Boston journals this advertisement: “This day published, price 9s. bound and lettered, and 6s. 8d. stitched in blue paper, THE POWER OF SYMPATHY: Or, the TRIUMPH OF NATURE. A NOVEL founded in truth.” Observant Bostonians knew that, during the decades prior to the Revolutionary War, lack of leisure, poverty of invention, and prejudice against fiction had restrained the colonists from any ventures in novel-writing—that, in fact, the American people had achieved a republic before they were able to produce a single indigenous novel. Then, political independence having been declared, fervent patriots had loudly demanded the instant appearance of native manners, native arts, and even native speech, only to discover that a national culture...
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SOURCE: Walser, Richard. “More About the First American Novel.” American Literature 24, no. 3 (1933): 352-57.
[In the following essay, Walser traces the connections between Brown's The Power of Sympathy and two dramas, Occurrences of the Times and The Better Sort, concluding that the latter was probably written by Brown himself in order to vindicate his authorship of the novel.]
Former accounts of the first American novel, William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy,1 have not fully taken into account two peculiar dramatic pieces, Occurrences of the Times and The Better Sort, which have some connection with the novel. Both, it is true, have been briefly mentioned in relation to Brown; but it may be illuminating now to explore more thoroughly the known facts of their publication and the instances of their relevancy. The two pieces were issued in the fifth week following the appearance of the novel. Occurrences of the Times clears the previously unauthenticated story concerning the attempted suppression of the novel by the Perez Morton family; and The Better Sort, while providing no direct reference to the famous work, has patterns of similarity and would seem to have been written by Brown himself.
The notorious portions of The Power of Sympathy are confined to Letters XXI-XXIII,2 in which are related...
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SOURCE: Fiedler, Leslie A. “The Beginning of the Anti-Bourgeois Sentimental Novel in America.” In Love and Death in the American Novel pp. 116-25. New York: Stein and Day, 1966.
[In the following excerpt, Fiedler explores the plot and authorial intentions of Brown's The Power of Sympathy, characterizing the book as a flawed piece of writing that nonetheless deserves critical attention.]
Advertised as the first American novel, The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature, which appeared in Boston in 1789, represents a serious bid to enter the lists of literature. The strategies (and presumably the motives) of the author are a little confusing: the title page declares his book no mere fiction but an account “founded on truth,” while the pair of couplets immediately below insist that the book's aim is to “win the Mind to Sentiment and Truth”; and the elegant dedication that follows more specifically explains that the author's intent is “to represent the specious Causes, and to expose the fatal Consequence of Seduction” for the benefit of “the young ladies of United Columbia.”
Yet the work was published anonymously, as if the writer were not quite convinced that he was engaged in an honorable enterprise; and the frontispiece has nothing to do with the main story, illustrating neither “the power of sympathy” or “nature” triumphant, but portraying...
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SOURCE: Byers, John R., Jr. “Further Verification of the Authorship of The Power of Sympathy.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 43, no. 3 (November 1971): 421-27.
[In the following essay, Byers revisits the authorship controversy surrounding The Power of Sympathy, arguing that several documents as well as Brown's handwriting show the novel to have been written by him.]
In October, 1894, Arthur W. Brayley, editor of the Bostonian, began a serial publication of the first American novel, The Power of Sympathy, under the name of Mrs. Sarah Wentworth Morton,1 to whom the novel, long anonymous, had been attributed publicly at least since 1878.2 Between the October and December issues of the magazine, Mrs. Rebecca Vollentine Thompson convinced the editor of the rightful authorship of William Hill Brown, her uncle, and supplied information concerning the 1789 publication of the novel. In the December issue of the Bostonian, Brayley corrected his error in a ten-page statement based largely on what, according to him, Mrs. Thompson, who was not identified by name, had revealed.3 Subsequently, although Professors Emily Pendleton and Milton Ellis argued logically and strongly for William Hill Brown as the author, Alexander Cowie noted the “cogent, though not absolutely conclusive, evidence” of...
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SOURCE: Petter, Henri. “Illegitimate Love.” In The Early American Novel, pp. 242-56. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971.
[In the following essay, Petter compares themes of incest and moral instruction in The Power of Sympathy and Ira and Isabella, arguing that their similarities do not prove Brown's authorship of the former work.]
In novels of the Monima type a happy ending is reached after the heroine has undergone many trials, including hair-breadth escapes from one form or another of a fate “worse than death.”1 Margaretta, for one, just barely escapes marrying her own father. Her escape is as narrow as that of the heroine in The History of Albert and Eliza (1812):2 had Eliza's marriage to Blake been consummated, she would have been the wife of a bigamist, and one married to his own half-sister. Eliza, too, after suffering various delays and anxieties, finally marries her true love, a happy ending already in sight when the truth about Blake becomes known. The retrospective horror of hearing about Blake's incest, and also that he unwittingly killed his (admittedly wicked) half-brother, does not quite blot from Eliza's memory her earlier harrowing experiences, but it certainly seems more important than the ordeals of her beloved Albert, who among other things has been a slave in Algiers.
The author of Albert and...
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SOURCE: Wilson, James D. “Incest and American Romantic Fiction.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 7, no. 1 (spring 1974): 31-50.
[In the following excerpt, Wilson argues against critics who have faulted The Power of Sympathy for being too sentimental, claiming that not only is the novel unsentimental, but that it also anticipates thematic concerns that would become central to gothic American literature.]
The first American novel, William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature (1789), appeared in Boston as an anonymous work seemingly cast in a Richardsonian mold; dedicated to “the Young Ladies of United Columbia,” the novel ostensibly was “intended to represent the specious CAUSES, and to Expose the fatal CONSEQUENCES, of SEDUCTION.”1 The novel's sentimental overtones and obvious indebtedness to the popular Samuel Richardson have led most critics to treat The Power of Sympathy as an historically important but intrinsically wretched example of the sentimental novel in America.2 Overly conscious, belabored didacticism and flat, dull characterization do indeed render the novel tedious; but the introduction of the theme of incest contributes an element of irony to the novel which undercuts its sentimentality and foreshadows basic themes in the American gothic novel for the next hundred years.
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SOURCE: Davidson, Cathy N. “The Power of Sympathy Reconsidered: William Hill Brown as Literary Craftsman.” Early American Literature 10, no. 1 (spring 1975): 14-29.
[In the following essay, Davidson argues that Brown's The Power of Sympathy has been unfairly criticized, offering a more flattering assessment of what she perceives as Brown's sophisticated literary technique and moral ambiguity.]
William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy begins with a claim designed to counter the prevailing eighteenth-century idea that novels were morally suspect. His novel will teach, the author implies in his Preface and Dedication, a simple moral truth: “the dangerous Consequences of SEDUCTION are exposed, and the Advantages of FEMALE EDUCATION set forth and recommended.”1 But, as Leslie A. Fiedler and Henri Petter observe, Brown gradually shifts his focus from the calculated transgressions of seducers to the more subtle psychological predicament of protagonists involved inadvertently in an incestuous relationship. While each of these critics illuminates aspects of The Power of Sympathy, Fiedler nevertheless implies that Brown's movement into weightier problems is barely conscious and hardly controlled, and Petter sees this progression as “superfluous” and perhaps even a flaw.2 In contrast, I maintain that Brown (while admittedly moving with some awkwardness...
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SOURCE: Walser, Richard. “Boston's Reception of the First American Novel.” Early American Literature 17, no. 1 (spring 1982): 65-72.
[In the following essay, Walser describes the New England atmosphere in which The Power of Sympathy was published, concluding that the sale of the novel was not suppressed, as has been argued by some scholars.]
In Boston on Friday, January 16, 1789, the semiweekly Herald of Freedom carried this provocative item:
AN AMERICAN NOVEL
We learn that there is now in the Press in this town a Novel, dedicated to the young ladies, which is intended to enforce attention to female education, and to represent the fatal consequences of Seduction. We are informed that one of the incidents upon which the Novel is founded, is drawn from a late unhappy suicide. We shall probably soon be enabled to lay before our readers some account of so truly Novel a work, upon such interesting subjects.
Additional information was provided on the following Wednesday, January 21, when the local Massachusetts Centinel contained an extensive advertisement announcing with patriotic pride the
FIRST AMERICAN NOVEL THIS DAY PUBLISHED, PRICE 9S. BOUND AND LETTERED, AND 6S. 8D. STICHED IN BLUE PAPER,
The Power of Sympathy: Or, the...
(The entire section is 3993 words.)
SOURCE: Young, Philip. “‘First American Novel’: The Power of Sympathy, in Place.” College Literature 11, no. 2 (spring 1984): 115-24.
[In the following essay, Young focuses on the theme of incest in The Power of Sympathy, linking it to European literary tradition and also noting the novel's influence on subsequent American letters.]
It is a coincidence of uncertain import that the American Novel got off to its shaky start in the same year, 1789, as the American Republic. The odd thing about that date for the novel is that the local premiere was such a late opening. Several giants of the English novel had finished their work by then; indeed it was announced the very next year in London that the novel was a “worn out species of composition” (Monthly Review, August, 1790, p. 463), all materials for it having been used up. 1789 is especially late in view of the fact that an appetite for fiction had developed much earlier in this country, largely stimulated by Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, 1741. This “first modern English novel” was the first novel published in the colonies—in 1744 by Benjamin Franklin, of course, who had noticed it was already selling off ships from the motherland. Most novels published here before 1800 were imports. Not paying writers for their work enhanced profits, which did nothing to promote a domestic product....
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SOURCE: Barnes, Elizabeth. “Affecting Relations: Pedagogy, Patriarchy, and the Politics of Sympathy.” American Literary History 8, no. 4 (winter 1996): 597-614.
[In the following essay, Barnes looks at The Power of Sympathy in light of the American Revolution, characterizing the novel as a complex work concerned with individual rights, authority, and the role of sentimentality.]
The late eighteenth century not only marks America's entrance into the political arena as an autonomous nation, it marks the emergence of an American literature that both signals and helps solidify that national identity. Managing the marriage of political and literary ingenuity in true republican style, the “first American novel,” William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy: Or, the Triumph of Nature (1789), locates the conflicts of a newly emerging political body in the individual bodies of its middle-class characters.1 It then dramatizes these conflicts in the context of the family structure. Through its sensational story line of seduction and sibling incest, Brown's epistolary novel foregrounds issues with which post-Revolutionary politics was most concerned: the nature and location of authority, the importance of individual rights in community, and the role of feeling in the maintenance of a stable and ordered society. What is at issue, for the novel and the culture...
(The entire section is 7208 words.)
SOURCE: Verhoeven, W. M. “‘Persuasive Rhetorick’: Representation and Resistance in Early American Epistolary Fiction.” In Making America/Making American Literature, edited by A. Robert Lee and W. M. Verhoeven, pp. 130-39. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996.
[In the following excerpt, Verhoeven takes issue with several critics who have written about The Power of Sympathy, arguing that Brown's work cannot properly be included in the ranks of epistolary novels, and indeed cannot really be classified as a novel at all.]
America's first epistolary novel may be a direct descendant of Clarissa, but it is a considerably toned down version of Richardson's original. The subtle epistolary techniques that Richardson employs in his magnum opus are seldom displayed in The Power of Sympathy. Thus the use of letters as a method of establishing mood and characterization does not extend much beyond the light-hearted bragging in Harrington's first three letters to his friend Worthy, and some simple typographical touches, mainly breathless dashes and meaningful italics, to increase the dramatic tension—most clearly in Harriet's farewell letter (Letter L) and in Harrington's last letters (notably LVI, LVII, and LXIV). Nowhere do Brown's letters even for a moment suggest that we are dealing with a real correspondence. The letters are without dates, most of them do not have any kind of salutation, and...
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Walser, Richard. “The North Carolina Sojourn of the First American Novelist.” North Carolina Historical Review XXVIII, no. 1 (January 1951): 138-55.
Recounts the years Brown spent in North Carolina, where he wrote several poems and essays and perhaps some of his dramas.
Dalke, Anne. “Original Vice: The Political Implications of Incest in the Early American Novel.” Early American Literature 23, no. 2 (1988): 188-201.
Describes half a dozen American novels dealing with incest written before 1830, including Brown's The Power of Sympathy and Isabella and Ira, arguing that these works highlight the authors' fears about social instability and familial disintegration in the new American republic.
Evans, Gareth. “Rakes, Coquettes and Republican Patriarchs: Class, Gender and Nation in Early American Sentimental Fiction.” Canadian Review of American Studies no. 3 (1995): 41-62.
Comparative analysis of Brown's The Power of Sympathy, Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette, and Susanna Rowson's Charlotte, claiming that all three are novels aimed at creating an American middle-class identity.
Martin, Terence. “William Hill Brown's Ira and Isabella.” New England Quarterly XXXII, no. 1...
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