power of sympathy

Two-hundred and twenty-six years ago today, on January 21, 1789, a strange little book began appearing in shops and on push-carts around the streets of Boston, Massachusetts. The book, with the long (but usual for the time) title The Power of Sympathy: Or, the Triumph of Nature, was printed by one of Massachusetts’s most respected publishers, the venerated Isaiah Thomas, who had earned his bones as a newspaper publisher during the American Revolution. Now, in the years immediately following it, The Power of Sympathy marked a sea change in American letters. It was the first real novel written and published in the United States, dealing with American themes, characters and situations, and printed by Americans. This was a big deal. The novel as a literary art form was not very old in 1789, and until Thomas’s publication of The Power of Sympathy, all novels printed in America–which weren’t very many, to be sure–came from England or France. This was a first in American literature.

It was also shocking, and confusing. As almost all novels were in the late 18th century, The Power of Sympathy was written in epistolary format, meaning the story was told entirely in letters written between the characters. Many European novels of the time used this format as a means to try to pretend they were actually real and not fictional at all; Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 French book, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, used this format. (That famous novel was adapted as a London stage play in the 1980s, which eventually became the Academy Award-winning 1988 movie Dangerous Liaisons, starring Michelle Pfieffer and John Malkovich). Also, most novels of this period were about sex in one way or another. The Power of Sympathy definitely was. The plot dealt with Thomas Harrington, a well-to-do young man who falls for Harriot Fawcet. They begin a scandalous love affair, which soon becomes even more shocking when it is revealed that Harriot is actually Thomas’s sister. Shamed and horrified, Harriot dies of tuberculosis, and Harrington commits suicide. Cheerful ending, eh?

perez morton

Perez Morton, Boston lawyer, politician and noted revolutionary, was suspected of banging his wife’s sister. Was The Power of Sympathy written to shame him?

The thing was, The Power of Sympathy was, as they now say in Hollywood, “based on a true story.” In 1788, in real life, noted Boston lawyer Perez Morton was scandalized for carrying on a love affair with Frances “Fanny” Apthorp, who was the sister of Perez’s wife, Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton. (You got all this? There’s going to be a test later. I’m a teacher, remember). Fanny squeezed out a kid, purportedly by Perez, and this made the whole sordid deal public. Fanny committed suicide. The whole affair was exposed by a newspaper called the Columbian Centinel, which was–surprise!–a major competitor of the papers printed by Isaiah Thomas. So obviously the novel, a thinly-veiled version of what most of Boston society believed to be the truth, was obviously meant to get back at someone.

But who? Why? And most importantly, who actually wrote The Power of Sympathy? 225 years later, authors are more than happy to shout their accomplishments from the rooftops; the whole ridiculous social ritual known as “NaNoWriMo” is dedicated to supposedly celebrating authorship of bad novels. In 1789, being publicly identified as the author of a novel, especially one about sex, was thought to be a matter of public shame. No by-line appeared on the copies of The Power of Sympathy that sold like hotcakes in Boston in the winter of 1789. Part of the draw was for people to read the book and then try to figure out who wrote it. Suspicion of authorship fell very quickly upon Sarah Morton herself–the wife of the philandering cad of a husband who’d knocked up her sister and evidently drove her to suicide. After all, what better revenge could a cuckolded wife have in 1789 than to expose her husband’s depravity to all of society?


Sarah Apthorp Morton, the aggrieved wife of the aforementioned Perez and sister to the scarlet woman who turned her husband’s head. Was it her jealous quill that penned The Power of Sympathy?

There was just one problem with this theory: it wasn’t true. Sarah Morton was a writer, specializing in poetry with a political bent; she evidently contributed pieces, always under pen names, to various Boston papers in the early 1790s. But she most likely did not write The Power of Sympathy. Despite her shame at her husband’s naughtiness, she seems to have taken him back; Perez Morton, who later served as Speaker of the House for the legislature of Massachusetts, died in 1837 still married to her. Modern scholars believe the poison-pen novel was written by William Hill Brown, an intelligent and creative young man who happened to be a neighbor of the Mortons. Brown, apparently shocked by Perez Morton’s indiscretions, wrote the novel to shame him and vindicate Sarah. He was also a voracious consumer of European novels and seems to have wanted to establish this form of literature in America. He certainly did that. Though few know his name today, William Hill Brown is America’s first novelist.

There may also have been a political motive. Brown was an ardent patriot, and at the time he wrote The Power of Sympathy the Revolution had just ended and the Constitution was just going into effect. Some critics have read the novel as an allegory for the American nation, stressing the need for “moral education” for Americans after the new nation’s estrangement from the evil corrupt British. Personally I think the American nationhood interpretation is very strained. Brown probably saw a good story coming his way, full of sex, scandal and salaciousness, and wanted to stir the pot. Thus, he scribbled down the tawdry book, sold it to Isaiah Thomas who recognized a surefire hit when he saw one, and the rest is history. Brown died in 1793, only four years after the novel was published, and before his literary career could really take off.

There have been many great American novelists over the years: James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Thomas Pynchon. But their roots all go back to William Hill Brown, who was the very first American novelist. Virtually no one remembers The Power of Sympathy, but it was a landmark in the history of world literature: the first real novel that was uniquely American. And a barn-burner of a read, at least by 1789 standards. Who could ask for more?