Brown’s Power of Sympathy

January 21: William Hill Brown’s The Powerof Sympathy, or, the Triumph ofNature, generally accepted as the first American novel, was published onthis day in 1789. Told in epistolary form, it is a cautionary tale of unwittingincest, at the end of which, wracked by guilt and loss, the sibling-loverscommit suicide, their gravestone-monument reading, “And Sympathy united,whom Fate divides.” Worried that it would draw fire from the Puritan,anti-novel lobby, Brown dedicated his novel to “the Young Ladies of UnitedColumbia,” that they might register “the fatal CONSEQUENCES ofSEDUCTION” and be inspired to live according to “a Principle of SelfComplacency.” Brown’s epigraph continues the authorial self-defense:           

Fain would he strew Life’sthorny Way with Flowers,

And open to your ViewElysian Bowers;

Catch the warm Passions ofthe tender Youth,

And win the Mind toSentiment and Truth.

Additional precautionsincluded the title-page statement “Founded in Truth,” a reference toa contemporary incest scandal in New England, and a protracted debate in thenovel over the uses and abuses of novel-reading. Even so, not wishing todestroy his writing career, the twenty-three-year-old Brown published the novelanonymously.

The following excerpt isfrom the story’s high point, the sister-lover Harriot pouring out her anguishto her brother-lover Harrington:

I recollect myself, andendeavour to rouse my prudence and fortitude; I abhor my conduct, and wish forobscurity and forgetfulness. Who can bear the torment of fluctuating passion?How deplorable is the contest? The head and the heart are at variance, but whenNature pleads how feeble is the voice of Reason? Yet, when Reason is heard inher turn, how criminal appears every wish of my heart? Will my feeble frame,already wasted by a lingering decline, support these evils? Will the shatteredfrail bark outride the tempest, and will the waves of affliction beat in vain?Virtue, whose precepts I have not forgotten, will assist me—if not to surmount, at least to suffer with fortitude and patience.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.