The First American Novel: “The Power of Sympathy”

The distinction of the “First American Novel” is commonly awarded to “The Power of Sympathy,” written by William Hill Brown and published in 1789. This work is notable not just for its pioneering status but also for its content and the intentions behind its creation.

Synopsis and Themes

“The Power of Sympathy” is an epistolary novel, meaning it is composed of a series of letters. The story centers around the tragic love affair between Harriot Fawcet and Harrington, whose relationship ultimately succumbs to societal pressures and personal flaws. Through their correspondences, the novel explores significant themes such as the consequences of seduction, the importance of virtue, and the moral pitfalls that individuals face. Brown’s narrative serves as a moralistic tale, warning readers of the dangers associated with unchecked passions and societal transgressions.

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Literary Significance

The significance of “The Power of Sympathy” extends beyond its status as the first American novel. It represents an early attempt to create a distinctly American voice in literature, one that reflects the values and issues of the newly independent nation. At a time when American literature was still in its infancy and heavily influenced by European styles and themes, Brown’s work stands out for its focus on American settings and social issues.

Impact on American Literature

While “The Power of Sympathy” may not be widely read today, its impact on American literature is profound. It laid the groundwork for the development of a national literature that would explore the unique experiences and challenges of American life. Subsequent American authors, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain, would build on this foundation, crafting narratives that delved deeper into the American psyche and society.


The legacy of “The Power of Sympathy” lies in its historical importance. As the first novel written by an American author and published in the United States, it marked the beginning of a literary tradition that would grow and evolve over the centuries. Its exploration of moral and social issues set a precedent for future American literature, demonstrating the novel’s potential to reflect and critique society.


In summary, “The Power of Sympathy” by William Hill Brown holds a special place in the annals of American literary history. As the first American novel, it not only initiated the nation’s literary journey but also set a thematic and moral framework that would influence generations of writers. Its contribution to American literature is a testament to the enduring power of the novel as a vehicle for social commentary and moral reflection

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