January 21, 2011

The Triumph of Nature, Founded in Truth

Off the press of Isaiah Thomas, on January 21, 1789,* The Power of Sympathy: Or, the Triumph of Nature, Founded in Truth was published. Today, the book is considered the first American novel — written by a native of (then British) North America and published in North America.

The novel fictionalizes a real-life scandal: a man seduced his own sister-in-law, and left her pregnant. She committed suicide to escape social scorn.

The book seems to have had little circulation outside of Massachusetts. This is not surprising; early printers, even into the mid-19th century, made little effort to find a broad audience. Instead, they focused on garnering regional attention; nationwide circulation of books was too difficult. Also not surprisingly, the book did not carry the author's name.

That detail, however, caused some concern. When the book was first touted seriously as the first American novel in 1850, the anthologist that revived it attributed the text to a Boston poet named Sarah Wentworth Morgan. She was fairly popular — and, it turns out, was the wife of the seducer and sister of the seduced in the real-life scandal.

Just over a century after its publication, in 1894, a Boston editor began republishing the novel in serialized form, still touting it as the first American novel, now attributed to Morgan. A reader came forward, however, to correct the assumption. That reader claimed her uncle, William Hill Brown, was the true author. As years went on, significant evidence came forward verifying that claim.

*Scholars seem to use this date based on the first advertisements for the book which, even then, was called the "First American Novel." For more on the history of this book, see Cathy N. Davidson's Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (2004).


  1. You say the book was first published in 1789. Then you say: "written by a native of (then British) North America" wasn't Massachusetts part of the United States by 1789?

  2. Certainly. But the author was not born ("native") in the United States, but in British North America.