Brown's Power of Sympathy

January 21: William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy, or, the Triumph of Nature, generally accepted as the first American novel, was published on this day in 1789. Told in epistolary form, it is a cautionary tale of unwitting incest, at the end of which, wracked by guilt and loss, the sibling-lovers commit 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 United Columbia," that they might register "the fatal CONSEQUENCES of SEDUCTION" and be inspired to live according to "a Principle of Self Complacency." Brown's epigraph continues the authorial self-defense:           

Fain would he strew Life's thorny Way with Flowers,

And open to your View Elysian Bowers;

Catch the warm Passions of the tender Youth,

And win the Mind to Sentiment and Truth.

Additional precautions included the title-page statement "Founded in Truth," a reference to a contemporary incest scandal in New England, and a protracted debate in the novel over the uses and abuses of novel-reading. Even so, not wishing to destroy his writing career, the twenty-three-year-old Brown published the novel anonymously.

 

The following excerpt is from the story's high point, the sister-lover Harriot pouring out her anguish to her brother-lover Harrington:

I recollect myself, and endeavour to rouse my prudence and fortitude; I abhor my conduct, and wish for obscurity and forgetfulness. Who can bear the torment of fluctuating passion? How deplorable is the contest? The head and the heart are at variance, but when Nature pleads how feeble is the voice of Reason? Yet, when Reason is heard in her turn, how criminal appears every wish of my heart? Will my feeble frame, already wasted by a lingering decline, support these evils? Will the shattered frail 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.

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