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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

7 Fascinating Facts About the First American Novel

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On this date in 1789, Boston bookseller Isaiah Thomas and Company published The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature. Released just six years after the official end of the Revolutionary War, the book—a cautionary tome, published in two volumes, about the dangers of giving in to passion and featuring unwitting incest and suicide—is generally considered to be the first American novel. Within its pages, the author not only defended novels as a whole—which, at the time, were thought to be morally bereft—but also his novel, promising that it was moral as could be: “The dangerous consequences of SEDUCTION are exposed,” the author wrote, and the "Advantages of FEMALE EDUCATION set forth and recommended.” Here are a few things you might not have known about the book.

1. IT’S A TEXTBOOK EXAMPLE OF AN 18TH CENTURY WRITING DEVICE.

The Power of Sympathy is a book written as a series of letters between characters, a type of literary device known as the epistolary technique. Other examples of the form—which was popular from the 18th century right up to the present day and could include any type of document, from diary entries to newspaper clippings—include Clarissa (1748), Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782), and Dracula (1897).

2. ONE PLOTLINE WAS VERY SIMILAR TO A LOCAL SCANDAL.

Just five months before Sympathy was published, Boston resident Fanny Apthorp committed suicide, and her reasons for doing so became a central plotline in the first volume of the book. The location of the scandal was changed from Boston to Rhode Island, and its participants were given new monikers—but according to William S. Kable, then an associate professor of English at the University of South Carolina who wrote the introduction to a 1969 edition of Sympathy, that only “[threw] a very thin veil of fiction” over the actual scandal [PDF]:

In the story, Ophelia (Frances Theodora Apthorp) is seduced by her sister’s husband, Martin (Perez Morton). After their illicit relationship produces a child, Ophelia’s father, Shepherd (Charles Apthorp) is bound and determined to bring about a settlement. Just before a scheduled confrontation of the various parties, Ophelia (Fanny) poisons herself.

Morton—a friend of future president John Adams—didn’t appear to suffer from the affair, personally or professionally: He and his wife, Sarah Wentworth Morton, later reconciled, and he served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives just five years after the scandal.

3. IT WAS PUBLISHED ANONYMOUSLY.

There was no name on Sympathy on its initial publication, but the book did have a dedication, which read:

To the Young Ladies,
Of United Columbia,
Intended to represent the specious causes,
And to
Explore the fatal Consequences of Seduction;
To inspire the female mind
With a principle of self complacency
And to
Promote the Economy of Human Life,
Are inscribed,
With Esteem and Sincerity,
By their
Friend and Humble Servant,
The Author

4. AFTER PUBLICATION, THE BOOK WAS SUPPRESSED.

Despite the fact that Thomas advertised the book in several papers (the ads read, “This Day Published THE POWER OF SYMPATHY, OR THE TRIUMPH OF NATURE, The First American Novel”) and released two versions (a version bound in calf leather for 9 shillings, and one in blue paper for 6), Milton Ellis, co-author of Philenia: the Life and Works of Mrs. Sarah Wentworth Morton, wrote in a 1933 issue of American Literature that Sympathy was “little noticed and soon forgotten. Aside from advertisements and two puffs in the Massachusetts Magazine, also published by Isaiah Thomas … it [was] mentioned in print only five times in 1789, only twice between 1790 and 1800, and not at all during the 50 years following.”

That was likely because, at the request of the Mortons and Apthorps—and with the cooperation of the author—publication of the book ceased, and unbought copies were destroyed, to avoid painful rehashing of the scandal. But that effort wasn’t completely successful: Advertisements for the book appeared a few years later, and it was still available for purchase.

5. NEARLY A CENTURY AFTER IT WAS PUBLISHED, IT WAS ATTRIBUTED TO MORTON’S WIFE …

After her husband’s affair, Sarah Wentworth Morton became a widely-published poet; she died in 1846. The rumor that she was the author of Sympathy began in the mid-1800s, but didn’t appear in print until 1878, when historian Francis Samuel Drake said in The Town of Roxbury that “The seduction of a near and dear relative is said to have formed the groundwork of the first American novel, The Power of Sympathy, written by Mrs. Morton.”

In June 1894, the book was reissued; the title page read “By Mrs. Perez Morton (Sarah Wentworth Apthorp),” and the book’s editor called her the "self-acknowledged author.” Then, in October of that year, Bostonian magazine began publishing the novel in installments; editor Arthur W. Brayley attributed the book to Morton once again.

6. … BUT THE AUTHOR WAS LATER REVEALED TO BE A MAN NAMED WILLIAM HILL BROWN.

By December 1894, however, Brayley had changed his tune and printed a retraction in the Bostonian. What had changed? Eighty-year-old Rebecca Volentine Thompson came forward with new information. She revealed that it was her uncle, William Hill Brown—a neighbor of the Apthorps—who had written Sympathy. Brown, just 24 when Sympathy was released, was likely well aware of the scandal it might cause; not wanting to ruin his future writing prospects, he chose to publish anonymously.

There had been clues that the author was a man. For one, the title page referred to the author as a he (“Fain would he strew Life’s thorny way with flowers …”). And contemporary sources also used the masculine pronoun when referring to the author: According to Ellis, “one calls him an ‘amiable youth’; and one, in alluding to him, substitutes five dashes for the letters of his name” (Brown has five letters). But it was Thompson’s story that sealed the deal: According to Kable, she told Brayley that “the Apthorps and the Browns were intimate friends. Young William was, therefore, thoroughly acquainted with all of the details of the ‘horrible affair’ and was thus furnished with the ‘material for a strong story.’”

After Thompson came forward, the remaining installments of the book were published under Brown’s name.

7. IT WASN’T BROWN’S ONLY WORK.

In 1789, the year Sympathy was published, Brown also wrote “Harriot, or the Domestic Reconciliation,” which appeared in Massachusetts Magazine (published by Isaiah Thomas). He later penned a play called West Point Preserved (first performed in 1797, three years after Brown died) and some fables and essays. A second novel, Ira and Isabella, was published in 1807 (according to Kable, everything from its misspellings to its plot are very similar to Sympathy, but this novel has a happy ending). More essays and fables were published posthumously. But, according to the forward of the 1969 edition of Sympathy, the book was “the only one of his works to achieve any lasting distinction” [PDF].

Sadly, Sympathy wasn't a great novel. Kable notes that while the book “is the product of a sophisticated reader”—it's littered with literary allusions, from Shakespeare and Swift to Noah Webster and Lord Chesterfield— “… 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 ‘thinness of realization’ meant that his finished product fell far short of greatness.”

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12 Facts About Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
George C. Beresford/Getty Images
George C. Beresford/Getty Images

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella about venturing into the moral depths of colonial Africa is among the most frequently analyzed literary works in college curricula.

1. ENGLISH WAS THE AUTHOR’S THIRD LANGUAGE.

It’s impressive enough that Conrad wrote a book that has stayed relevant for more than a century. This achievement seems all the more impressive when considering that he wrote it in English, his third language. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, Conrad was a native Polish speaker. French was his second language. He didn’t even know any English—the language of his literary composition—until age 21.

2. HEART OF DARKNESS BEGINS AND ENDS IN THE UK.

Though it recounts Marlow's voyage through Belgian Congo in search of Kurtz and is forever linked to the African continent, Conrad’s novella begins and ends in England. At the story’s conclusion, the “tranquil waterway” that “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” is none other than the River Thames.

3. THE PROTAGONIST MARLOW IS CONRAD.

The well-traveled Marlow—who appears in other Conrad works, such as Lord Jim—is based on his equally well-traveled creator. In 1890, 32-year-old Conrad sailed the Congo River while serving as second-in-command on a Belgian trading company steamboat. As a career seaman, Conrad explored not only the African continent but also ventured to places ranging from Australia to India to South America.

4. LIKE KURTZ AND MARLOW, CONRAD GOT SICK ON HIS VOYAGE.

Illness claimed Kurtz, an ivory trader who has gone mysteriously insane. It nearly claimed Marlow. And these two characters almost never existed, owing to their creator’s health troubles. Conrad came down with dysentery and malaria in Belgian Congo, and afterwards had to recuperate in the German Hospital, London, before heading to Geneva, Switzerland, to undergo hydrotherapy. Though he survived, Conrad suffered from poor health for many years afterward.

5. THERE HAVE BEEN MANY ALLEGED KURTZES IN REAL LIFE.

The identity of the person on whom Conrad based the story’s antagonist has aroused many a conjecture. Among those suggested as the real Kurtz include a French agent who died on board Conrad’s steamship, a Belgian colonial officer, and Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

6. COLONIZING WAS ALL THE RAGE WHEN HEART OF DARKNESS APPEARED.

Imperialism—now viewed as misguided, oppressive, and ruthless—was much in vogue when Conrad’s novella hit shelves. The "Scramble for Africa" had seen European powers stake their claims on the majority of the continent. Britain’s Queen Victoria was even portrayed as the colonies' "great white mother." And writing in The New Review in 1897, adventurer Charles de Thierry (who tried and failed to establish his own colony in New Zealand) echoed the imperialistic exuberance of many with his declaration: “Since the wise men saw the star in the East, Christianity has found no nobler expression.”

7. CHINUA ACHEBE WAS NOT A FAN OF THE BOOK.

Even though Conrad was no champion of colonialism, Chinua Achebe—the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart and other novels—delivered a 1975 lecture called “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” that described Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” and his ubiquitous short classic as “an offensive and deplorable book.” However, even Achebe credited Conrad for having “condemned the evil of imperial exploitation.” And others have recognized Heart of Darkness as an indictment of the unfairness and barbarity of the colonial system.

8. THE BOOK WASN’T SUCH A BIG DEAL—AT FIRST.

In 1902, three years after its initial serialization in a magazine, Heart of Darkness appeared in a volume with two other Conrad stories. It received the least notice of the three. In fact, not even Conrad himself considered it a major work. And during his lifetime, the story “received no special attention either from readers or from Conrad himself,” writes Gene M. Moore in the introduction to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. But Heart of Darkness managed to ascend to immense prominence in the 1950s, after the planet had witnessed “the horror”—Kurtz's last words in the book—of WWII and the ramifications of influential men who so thoroughly indulged their basest instincts.

9. T.S. ELIOT BORROWED AN IMPORTANT LINE.

Though Heart of Darkness wasn’t an immediate sensation, it evidently was on the radar of some in the literary community. The famous line announcing the antagonist’s demise, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead,” serves as the epigraph to the 1925 T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.”

10. THE STORY INSPIRED APOCALYPSE NOW.

Eighty years after Conrad’s novella debuted, the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now hit the big screen. Though heavily influenced by Heart of Darkness, the movie’s setting is not Belgian Congo, but the Vietnam War. And though the antagonist (played by Marlon Brando) is named Kurtz, this particular Kurtz is no ivory trader, but a U.S. military officer who has become mentally unhinged.

11. HEART OF DARKNESS HAS BEEN MADE INTO AN OPERA.

Tarik O'Regan’s Heart of Darkness, an opera in one act, opened in 2011. Premiering at London’s Royal Opera House, it was reportedly the first operatic adaptation of Conrad’s story and heavily inspired by Apocalypse Now.

12. THE BOOK ALSO SPARKED A VIDEO GAME.

In a development not even Conrad’s imagination could have produced, his classic inspired a video game, Spec Ops: The Line, which was released in 2012.

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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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