On January 21, 1789, Boston publisher Isaiah Thomas and Company published what is generally considered to be the first American novel: 24-year-old William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature, which sold (albeit badly) for the price of 9 shillings.
It is the classic story of boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy and girl find out they’re siblings on their wedding day, girl promptly dies of consumption, boy eventually shoots himself while clutching a copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther to his breast. You know the tale.
“The Power of Sympathy is not, as might be expected, a feeble echo or slavish imitation of a single British novel; it reflects a number of literary influences,” wrote William S. Kable in a 1969 introduction to the text. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, with which it shares its epistolary form, is the most obvious influence, but Kable also detects the impact of Laurence Sterne and Goethe, along with “allusions to La Rochefoucault and St. Evremond; to Swift, Addison, Gay, Shakespeare, and Lord Chesterfield; to Noah Webster, Joel Barlow, and Timothy Dwight.”
Okay—but is it any good? “The richness of literary allusion in The Power of Sympathy shows that it is the product of a sophisticated reader,” writes Kable, “but the novel is obviously the work of an unsophisticated writer. In important matters of plotting and characterization as well as in details of diction and grammar, Brown’s clumsiness is all too apparent. The variety of resources at his command contained the potential for a fine novel, but the ‘thinness of realization’ meant that his finished product fell far short of greatness.”
Alas. “Still, Sympathy fascinates because it’s so purely the product of a historical moment,” wrote Dan Piepenbring in The Paris Review. “In 1789, literacy was on the rise and the business of publishing, especially newspaper publishing, was coming into its own. Letter writing was increasingly popular—the medium of the written word felt more democratic than ever before. The country was new and hungry for stories about itself; what we think of as the American character had yet to be minted. Beneath Sympathy’s many layers of mawkishness, there are some uniquely American details—lavish descriptions of the Rhode Island (‘Rhodeisland’) greenery, for instance, and a surprisingly frank discussion of the South’s culture of slavery.”
And after all, it was only a place to start.