The Power of Sympathy Background

The Power of Sympathy Background

William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy holds a distinctive place in American literature. With its publication by Isaiah Thomas and Company of Boston in 1789, The Power of Sympathy became the very first novel written by an American that was set in America and printed for publication in America. Two novels written by colonists and set in the colonies preceded Brown’s novel on those scores, but both The Life of Harriet Stuart and Adventures of Alonso had received their printing back in London.

The route to becoming the first fully American novel is even more impressive upon consideration that it had to wind through the well-established prickly sensibilities of Puritanism which still held strong in Boston even after the Revolution. One of the tenets of Puritan belief was that fiction was equitable with dishonesty and deception. As a result, William Hill Brown felt compelled to assert on the title page of the first edition that the narrative which followed was “Founded in Truth.” As for the rather salacious content (for its time) of incestuous temptation and inducement to sex, he found a nifty way around that as well by promoting the novel as a means of exposing the dangerous consequences of such behavior by education potential victims.

Perhaps needless to say, The Power of Sympathy was originally published anonymously. In fact, well into the 19th century authorship was more often than not mistakenly attributed to Sara Wentworth Morton. Morton was a poet of some renown whose fairer claim to authorship was that she was the sister of Fanny Apthorp whose seduction by Perez Morton was universally recognized as the true life inspiration behind Brown’s tale of woe. Who better to know such intimate details as those which Brown had described in vivid detail (for its time) than someone who had actually been on the inside?

It would not be until 1894, more than a century after publication, that Brown would finally be established as the actual author of the novel. The fact that the actual creator of The Power of Sympathy just so happened to be a neighbor of the Morton family is, perhaps, purely incidental.

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