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.


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).


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.”

Arend Kuester, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Qatar National Library's Panorama-Style Bookshelves Offer Guests Stunning Views
Arend Kuester, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Arend Kuester, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The newly opened Qatar National Library in the capital city of Doha contains more than 1 million books, some of which date back to the 15th century. Co.Design reports that the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) designed the building so that the texts under its roof are the star attraction.

When guests walk into the library, they're given an eyeful of its collections. The shelves are arranged stadium-style, making it easy to appreciate the sheer number of volumes in the institution's inventory from any spot in the room. Not only is the design photogenic, it's also practical: The shelves, which were built from the same white marble as the floors, are integrated into the building's infrastructure, providing artificial lighting, ventilation, and a book-return system to visitors. The multi-leveled arrangement also gives guests more space to read, browse, and socialize.

"With Qatar National Library, we wanted to express the vitality of the book by creating a design that brings study, research, collaboration, and interaction within the collection itself," OMA writes on its website. "The library is conceived as a single room which houses both people and books."

While most books are on full display, OMA chose a different route for the institution's Heritage Library, which contains many rare, centuries-old texts on Arab-Islamic history. This collection is housed in a sunken space 20 feet below ground level, with beige stone features that stand out from the white marble used elsewhere. Guests need to use a separate entrance to access it, but they can look down at the collection from the ground floor above.

If Qatar is too far of a trip, there are plenty of libraries in the U.S. that are worth a visit. Check out these panoramas of the most stunning examples.

Qatar library.

Qatar library.

Qatar library.

[h/t Co.Design]

All images: Arend Kuester, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Reading Aloud to Your Kids Can Promote Good Behavior and Sharpen Their Attention

Some benefits of reading aloud to children are easy to see. It allows parents to introduce kids to books that they're not quite ready to read on their own, thus improving their literacy skills. But a new study published in the journal Pediatrics shows that the simple act of reading to your kids can also influence their behavior in surprising ways.

As The New York Times reports, researchers looked at young children from 675 low-income families. Of that group, 225 families were enrolled in a parent-education program called the Video Interaction Project, or VIP, with the remaining families serving as the control.

Participants in VIP visited a pediatric clinic where they were videotaped playing and reading with their children, ranging in age from infants to toddlers, for about five minutes. Following the sessions, videos were played back for parents so they could see how their kids responded to the positive interactions.

They found that 3-year-olds taking part in the study had a much lower chance of being aggressive or hyperactive than children in the control group of the same age. The researchers wondered if these same effects would still be visible after the program ended, so they revisited the children 18 months later when the kids were approaching grade-school age. Sure enough, the study subjects showed fewer behavioral problems and better focus than their peers who didn't receive the same intervention.

Reading to kids isn't just a way to get them excited about books at a young age—it's also a positive form of social interaction, which is crucial at the early stages of social and emotional development. The study authors write, "Such programs [as VIP] can result in clinically important differences on long-term educational outcomes, given the central role of behavior for child learning."

Being read to is something that can benefit all kids, but for low-income parents working long hours and unable to afford childcare, finding the time for it is often a struggle. According to the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health, only 34 percent of children under 5 in families below the poverty line were read to every day, compared with 60 percent of children from wealthier families. One way to narrow this divide is by teaching new parents about the benefits of reading to their children, possibly when they visit the pediatrician during the crucial first months of their child's life.

[h/t The New York Times]


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