William Hill Brown Essay - Critical Essays

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.

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.

Principal Works

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


Milton Ellis (essay date 1933)

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...

(The entire section is 3756 words.)

Tremaine McDowell (essay date November 1933)

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...

(The entire section is 2257 words.)

Richard Walser (essay date 1952)

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...

(The entire section is 2193 words.)

Leslie A. Fiedler (essay date 1966)

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...

(The entire section is 3878 words.)

John R. Byers, Jr. (essay date November 1971)

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...

(The entire section is 2626 words.)

Henri Petter (essay date 1971)

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...

(The entire section is 6137 words.)

James D. Wilson (essay date spring 1974)

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...

(The entire section is 1457 words.)

Cathy N. Davidson (essay date spring 1975)

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 entire section is 6689 words.)

Richard Walser (essay date spring 1982)

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:


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...

(The entire section is 3993 words.)

Philip Young (essay date spring 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 4020 words.)

Elizabeth Barnes (essay date winter 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 7208 words.)

W. M. Verhoeven (essay date 1996)

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 entire section is 4215 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 249 words.)