William Hill Brown

William Hill Brown (1765-1793) only lived until the age of 27. However, he produced significant contributions to literature during his short life. Most importantly William Hill Brown is known for writing what is considered to be the first American novel, The Power of Sympathy (1789). His literary works focused greatly on the upkeeping of moral codes in Colonial New England.

William Hill Brown William Hill Brown

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Table of contents

    The Power of Sympathy was published anonymously and references a local scandal in which Brown's neighbor, Perez Morton, seduces and impregnates Fanny Anthrop. She committed suicide while Morton went unpunished. Many accredited The Power of Sympathy to the poet Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton due to her relation to the scandal. Brown wasn't given credit for his novel until 1894!

    Biography of William Hill Brown

    Not much is written about William Hill Brown's short life. William Hill Brown was born in Boston in 1765. He anonymously published his first novel, The Power of Sympathy, at the age of twenty-three. He would go on to write two more novels, Harriot, or the Domestic Reconciliation (1789) and Ira and Isabella (1807), essays, and poems that were posthumously published in Selected Poems and Verse Fables 1784-1793 by William Hill Brown (1982).

    William Hill Brown, Colonial Boston home, StudySmarterBrown was born in colonial Boston. Pixabay.

    In 1792, William Hill Brown decided to go study law and moved to North Carolina. Brown settled in Murfreesboro, North Carolina. There, Thomas O'Neill, a merchant he knew, had a shop, and Brown's sister and brother-in-law lived there as well. Brown would begin to study law with General William R. Davie from Halifax, and he spent the last year of his life in North Carolina.

    In 1793, Brown became sick with a fever and died shortly after at the age of 27.

    Novels by William Hill Brown

    William Hill Brown wrote three novels during his lifetime, The Power of Sympathy, Ira and Isabella, and Harriot, or the Domestic Reconciliation. The Power of Sympathy followed the sentimental style of Samuel Richardson, an English novelist credited with developing the Modern English Novel. Hariot, or the Domestic Reconciliation was a romantic tale about a revolutionary soldier. In 1807, another novel by William Hill Brown was published called Ira and Isabella, which is a tale about the power of seduction and incest.

    William Hill Brown, Novel, StudySmarterBrown wrote three novels during his lifetime. Pixabay.

    William Hill Brown's novels were based on his knowledge of European Literature. He was especially inspired by Samuel Richardson's sentimental novel, Clarissa (1747-8). However, rather than follow the traditions of writing novels set in Britain, Brown's novels are unique for their being set in the American colonies and representing the local conflicts.

    His novels were focused on morality. In them, a character or characters are seduced or seducers. This inevitably leads to a tragedy of some sort. Brown wanted to remind his readers of a moral code he felt should be the foundation of American Colonial societies. These moral codes are based on rationality, restraint, and sympathy. In the preface of the Power of Sympathy, Brown writes:

    ... and to Expose the fatal CONSEQUENCES, of SEDUCTION; to inspire the Female Mind With a Principle of Self Complacency." (Preface)

    Brown was especially concerned with the young women in his society falling into traps of seduction and involving themselves in scandal. Therefore, his novels have a didactic overtone that is meant to remind and guide the reader on codes of morality.

    Didactic meant to teach and guide a reader through moral instruction and lessons.

    His novels may have also included taboo topics such as incest for the purpose of capturing a reader's attention. In 18th-century literature, taboo topics would thrill audiences and engage them, which allows Brown's moralistic teachings to be more impactful on the reader.

    The Power of Sympathy by William Hill Brown

    The Power of Sympathy by William Hill Brown is considered to be the first American novel. It is a Sentimental Novel that uses the epistolary form.

    The Sentimental Novel is a literary genre from the 18th century that promotes sentiment and sensibility. Sentimental Novels were meant to evoke and display emotional responses to varied stressful situations. By showing real feelings and emotions, the character becomes a model of how to respond to such emotions.

    A novel written in Epistolary Form is a novel that is written as a series of letters.

    William Hill Brown, epistolary form, StudySmarterThe Power of Sympathy is written in epistolary form. Pixabay.

    The novel opens with letters written between Thomas Harrington and Jack Worthy. The reader learns Thomas is in love with Harriot, despite her father's hesitancy and Harriot's resistance. Thomas is determined to make her his lover but Jack warns him to court her properly.

    When Thomas and Harriot are married, a friend named Eliza Holmes reveals a shocking truth. Thomas and Harriot are actually step-siblings as they share the same mother, Maria Fawcet. Harriot becomes so upset about the incestuous relationship that she dies of consumption. When Harriot dies, Thomas commits suicide.

    Brown wove a moral lesson into the novel. Brown wanted the reader to see that characters that express too much sympathy have fatal consequences while those who are rational, remain alive. Sympathy, in the opinion of Brown, leads to an excess of passion and impulse, which happened to Thomas when he fell in love with Harriot. Therefore, Brown wants the reader to learn that a balance between sympathy and rationality must be found in order to live a successful and moral life.

    Impact of William Hill Brown

    William Hill Brown, American Novel, StudySmarterThe Power of Sympathy is considered the first American novel. Pixabay.

    When William Hill Brown first anonymously published The Power of Sympathy, the novel was not very successful. Many readers felt unsure about the moral lesson they were supposed to learn at the end of the novel because Brown leaves it up for interpretation. British didactic novels, which most American colonists were used to, always had a clear lesson by the end of the novel. However Brown left the text open, meaning readers must look at all the viewpoints laid out in the story and come to their own conclusions on morality. Brown was simply there as a writer to guide them. For this reason, Brown's writing became a uniquely American style of novel-writing that moved the direction of American literature away from mainly British traditions to independent traditions.

    Quotes by William Hill Brown

    Here are a few quotes from William Hill Brown's novels that exemplify his work.

    Isabella blushed; but it was not the blush of confusion, for she was not embarrassed; neither was it the blush of resentment, for she was not angry; neither was it the blush of shame, for she loved to hear truth. Was it the blush of wantonness? I am loth to think it, and yet why should Isabella be more unnatural in my hands than Juliet in those of Shakespeare." (Ira and Isabella)

    Wantonness is a word that means bad behavior and a lack of regard for the behavior's consequences. In the context of Ira and Isabella, wantonness is lustful desire.

    Here we see the concept of seduction and its power in Brown's novel Ira and Isabella. The narrator is trying to rationalize his love for Isabella and is being influenced by the power of seduction. He desires her so greatly, that he alludes to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1597) as a source of justification, but the reader can see that he is acting irrationally.

    Must I then forget the endearments of the lover, and call you by the name of brother? But does our friendship remain upon this foundation? Is this all that unites us? And has there subsisted nothing more tender-- a sentiment more voluntary in our hears? My feelings affirm that there was." (The Power of Sympathy, Letter 50)

    Harriot is writing to her husband/brother Thomas. She is conflicted about the overwhelming emotions she is feeling. On one hand, she knows that she is unable to be with Thomas any longer because he is her brother, incest is illegal, and it's very taboo. On the hand, Harriot still loves Thomas as a lover and feels that the love they had for one another was genuine. The heightened sense of emotion and focus on the emotional conflicts felt by Harriot in this passage exemplify the genre of Sentimental Novels.

    Yes! I raved-- I was distracted-- but now I am calm and dispassionate-- I am smooth as the surface of a lake-- I shall see her again. When our spirits are disencumbered of this load of morality, and they wing their flight to the celestial regions, shall we not then know those who were dear to us in this world?" (The Power of Sympathy, Letter 52)

    Thomas is about to commit suicide after his wife/half-sister Harriot dies in The Power of Sympathy. Suicide would've been seen in Colonial America as an immoral act. However, Thomas is trying to display his "rationality" in thought, and his rationality is clearly marked by the emotional distress her death has had on him. This creates a moral ambiguity that the reader must discern for themselves.

    William Hill Brown - Key takeaways

    • William Hill Brown was born in Boston in 1765 and is credited with writing the first American Novel, The Power of Sympathy.
    • William Hill Brown wrote three novels and multiple essays, poems, and plays throughout his short life.
    • His books are meant to be didactic and provide a lesson on morality. However, unlike British didactic novels, Brown wanted the reader to come to their own moral conclusions.
    • Brown's novels usually focused on the dangers and consequences of seduction, and they include taboo topics such as incest and suicide.
    • Brown's novels impacted American Literature by breaking away from British literary traditions and creating new literary traditions based on American settings and Colonial American conflicts on morality.
    Frequently Asked Questions about William Hill Brown

    Who wrote the first American novel The Power of Sympathy

    William Hill Brown wrote the first American novel. 

    Who was America's first great American novelist?

    William Hill Brown is credited with being the first American novelist. 

    Who is William Hill Brown? 

    William Hill Brown was an 18th-century American novelist, essayist, and poet who is known for writing the first American Novel, The Power of Sympathy.

    When was William Hill Brown born? 

    William Hill Brown was born in 1765. 

    How many novels did William Hill Brown write?

    Brown wrote three novels:

    1. The Power of Sympathy
    2. Harriot, or the Domestic Reconciliation
    3. Ira and Isabella

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is the title of William Hill Brown's novel that is considered to be the first American Novel?

    Where was William Hill Brown born?

    What kind of writing are Brown's novels?


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