William Hill Brown Criticism - Essay

Milton Ellis (essay date 1933)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.)