Early American Novels: The Sentimental Period

The first novel ever written in America of which anything is today known is The Power of Sympathy which was penned by the largely unknown author, William Hill Brown. For many years it was thought to have been written by a woman due to a erroneous attribution by Arthur Bayley of The Bostonian, who republished the work in 1793, after Brown’s death. The writer credited in Bayley’s edition of the tome was thought to have been the American poet, Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton.1

First published 25 years after Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, in 1789, Brown’s epistolary2 novel concerns a lurid romance between two Americans in their home country, the libidinous, if kindly, Thomas Harrington and the beautiful, if all-too naive, Harriot Fawcet. Harriot is hesitant to accept Harrington’s advances, at first, due to his direct manner and his desire to make her his mistress, which would entail a good deal of impropriety (something which mattered greatly for the highly prudent Americans of the time). After receiving criticism from his tactful friend, Worthy, Harrington decides to take a more nuanced and socially acceptable approach in courting the object of his affections. This eventually wins Harriot over and she and Harrington plan a wedding, however, after they announce their engagement dire news surfaces. Harrington and Harriet are brother and sister; their love affair, incestuous. Harriet is so devastated by this grotesque news that she falls ill and dies of consumption. Harrington, distraught at the loss of his love and fully aware that it was his desire which brought her to such a sorry end, takes his own life with a pistol to end the suffering; his only legacy, a suicide note and copy of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werter (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers), which illustrates both Harrington’s fatalistic and despairing state of mind as well as one of the author’s obvious influences.

The circumstances of the young couple’s death is interesting given that, despite their prolific passion for the other, the lovers had remained chaste friends, both noble of heart and soul, despite their flaws. It would then seem that Brown means to indite neither Harriet nor Harrington, but rather their father whose seduction of Harriet’s mother acted as the catalyst for the dire affair. 

The grim tale’s purpose is clarified in the preface wherein the author writes that in the story,“-the dangerous consequences of seduction are exposed, and the advantages of female education set forth and recommended.” The preface’s litany against corruption is repeated again and again throughout the text, most stridently and overtly, perhaps, in a passage wherein the protagonists father remarks that, “-our female libraries are overrun,” with books which were, “-not regulated on the chaste principles of true friendship, rational love, and connubial duty, which appear to me totally unfit to form the minds of women, of friends, or of wives.” Another more poetic passage concerning the theme occurs when Harriot’s friend, Myra, learns of a seduction which led to the birth of “a child, at once the son and nephew of” the seducer. Myra laments the situation thusly:

Surely there is no human vice of so black a die, so fatal in its consequences — or which causes a more general calamity — than that of seducing a female from the path of honour.”

This moral instruction was born out of Brown’s opinion that females of his day had too keenly embraced all manner of novels which were barren of any salient moral lessons, due this, he feared a gradual moral decay. The general thrust of Brown’s pedagogy is not just against seduction and the degradation of female propriety, however, but also the overabundance of sympathy, for Brown (through the narrative) contends that this is no virtue, but the blackest of vices. The novel’s style is as distinctive as its message. Written as a series of letters between the primary characters similar to Diego de San Pedro‘s Cárcel de amor or C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the book also tackles ancillary topics of the time such as slavery. In passage, the protagonist, Thomas Harrington, addresses a female black slave who had offered up herself to the lash in place of her child. So noble does Harrington find this act that he offers up something of his own, a passionate blessing: “May he whom you call the best of beings continue you in the same sentiments…Then shalt thou feel every circumstance of thy life afford thee satisfaction…All thy labors will become easy — all thy burdens light, and the yoke of slavery will never gall thy neck.”

This espousal of hysterical tenderness towards a member of a out-group both attests to Harrington’s moral virtues as well as his abundance of sympathy, his supreme giving-over of himself to passion, that omnipresent hammer which hangs ever-ready to shatter the fetters of reason that impose themselves upon the well-kept mind. This titular fixation with the pitfalls associated with sympathy is one of the more originary aspects of the novel, one which the reader would doubtless be hard-pressed to find in a modern literary work. Cautions against over-sympathic self-giving are generally dolled out within the framework of the story by Thomas’ firm friend, the calm and sensible, Worthy. In one passage, Worthy discovers that Harrington is planning suicide and attempts to dissuade his friend from his self-destructive path by saying, “You argue as if your reason were perverted–Let your mind be employed, and time will wear out these gloomy ideas…” (II, 132). Somewhat later, Worthy employs his friend to reason further, “If you are disposed to argue, do not put foolish cases that never existed—take the light of facts, and reason from them” (II, 139). Needless to say, Harrington, perhaps, might have survived his ordeal had he headed his friends simple, but wise advice.

More interestingly, to me, is the willful separation, in the novel, of the descriptors “English/European” and “American.” Characters and places within the Americas are never referred to as English or European but only ever as American which seems to be the authors way of asserting the as yet developing sense of US identity (The Power of Sympathy was written just before Washington was chosen by the first Electoral College). This drive towards capturing and promoting a uniquely American identity is most starkly apparent in Ms. Holmes’ letter XXX to Myra, wherein she declares that the very notion of ridiculing “learned ladies” was a relic of transatlantic thought, a misbegotten notion which Ms. Holmes believes has been extracted from “some English novel or magazine.” She further goes on to say that, “The American ladies of this class, who come within our knowledge, we know to be justly celebrated as ornaments to our society, and an honour to the sex.” Ms. Holmes also bemoans the fact that there were not more works of American literature penned by the fairer sex. This distancing of one’s self from stodgy gender-specific moralizing seems to have been believed by Brown to be a important and distinguishing feature of American identity; where he viewed the British as chaffish and chastising to their womenfolk he say the noble American as up lifting their women to such a degree that they would desire to see them try their hand in the arts.

Though well known today, mainly due to its historical singularity, The Power of Sympathy was not widely distributed upon its initial release in 1789 and did not cultivate a immediate cultural impact. One of the reasons which had been generally offered to explain this is suppression. The novel contains a subplot which explains how the principal female protagonist, Harriet, was conceived; in this sub-section of the tale a real life affair is mirrored, one which was so widely covered that even casual, a-political individuals of the time would instantly recognized the parallel between the novel and the real life event. [continued in part 4]


1 Davidson, Cathy. Revolution and the Word. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. pp. 30–31

2 Epistolary novels are those wherein the story is communicated through letters as “epistle” means “letter.”

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