William Hill Brown Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.