Today in History: The First American Novel “Power of Sympathy” Published

Power of Sympathy
“Power of Sympathy” was the first documented American novel.

The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature (1789) is an 18th-century American sentimental novel written in epistolary form by William Hill Brown, widely considered to be the first American novel. The book was published by Isaiah Thomas in Boston on January 21, 1789. In the story, the characters’ struggles illustrate the dangers of seduction and the pitfalls of giving in to temptation. The book also “advocates the moral education of women” and the use of rational thinking as ways to prevent the consequences of such actions. In other words it’s a story that reinforces Puritanical Christian doctrines by scaring women.

The novel reflects early American interest in the role of women as both the representatives and the safe keepers of the country’s moral health. It show examples sexual temptation, displays the disastrous effects of giving in to seduction, and explains ways for the young girl to avoid this fate. The book is very didactic, (warning against sexual profligacy in both men and women) yet also takes on a sympathetic tone toward the seducer and the fallen woman. It urges the community to view the repentant sinners with compassion.

The book is historic in that it is considered the first novel by an American-born writer in the United States. The book was originally published anonymously. It’s story line is an example of sentimental romance written in epistolary form. Letters between the two main characters are a dialogue. The two young men who both have a love interest; Harrington has fallen in love with Harriot, who is beautiful and virtuous, but poor and beneath Harrington’s station in life, and Worthy is engaged to Harrington’s sister, Myra. Myra and Harriot are also friends, and their exchange of letters communicates Harriot’s dilemma of maintaining her virtue, even though her poverty makes the prospect of marriage to Harrington unlikely.



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