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7 Fascinating Facts About the First American Novel

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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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10 Terrific Facts About Stephen King
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Scott Eisen/Getty Images for Warner Bros.

As if being one of the world's most successful and prolific writers wasn't already reason enough to celebrate, Stephen King is ringing in his birthday as the toast of Hollywood. As It continues to break box office records, we're digging into the horror master's past. Here are 10 things you might not have known about Stephen King, who turns 70 years old today.

1. STEPHEN KING AND HIS WIFE, TABITHA, OWN A RADIO STATION.

Stephen and Tabitha King own Zone Radio, a company that serves to head their three radio stations in Maine. One of them, WKIT, is a classic rock station that goes by the tagline "Stephen King's Rock Station."

2. HE'S A HARDCORE RED SOX FAN.

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Not only did he write a story about the Boston Red Sox—The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (who was a former Red Sox pitcher)—he also had a cameo in the Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore movie Fever Pitch, which is about a crazed Sox fan. He plays himself and throws out the first pitch at a game.

In 2004, King and Stewart O'Nan, another novelist, chronicled their reactions to the season that finally brought the World Series title back to Beantown. It's appropriately titled Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season.

3. HE WAS HIT BY A CAR, THEN BOUGHT THE CAR THAT HIT HIM.

You probably remember that King was hit by a van not far from his summer home in Maine in 1999. The incident left King with a collapsed lung, multiple fractures to his hip and leg, and a gash to the head. Afterward, King and his lawyer bought the van for $1500 with King announcing that, "Yes, we've got the van, and I'm going to take a sledgehammer and beat it!"

4. AS A KID, HIS FRIEND WAS STRUCK AND KILLED BY A TRAIN.

King's brain seems to be able to create chilling stories at such an amazing clip, yet he's seen his fair share of horror in real life. In addition to the aforementioned car accident, when King was just a kid his friend was struck and killed by a train (a plot line that made it into his story "The Body," which was adapted into Stand By Me). While it would be easy to assume that this incident informed much of King's writing, the author claims to have no memory of the event:

"According to Mom, I had gone off to play at a neighbor’s house—a house that was near a railroad line. About an hour after I left I came back (she said), as white as a ghost. I would not speak for the rest of the day; I would not tell her why I’d not waited to be picked up or phoned that I wanted to come home; I would not tell her why my chum’s mom hadn’t walked me back but had allowed me to come alone.

"It turned out that the kid I had been playing with had been run over by a freight train while playing on or crossing the tracks (years later, my mother told me they had picked up the pieces in a wicker basket). My mom never knew if I had been near him when it happened, if it had occurred before I even arrived, or if I had wandered away after it happened. Perhaps she had her own ideas on the subject. But as I’ve said, I have no memory of the incident at all; only of having been told about it some years after the fact."

5. HE WROTE A MUSICAL WITH JOHN MELLENCAMP.

Theo Wargo/Getty Images

King, John Mellencamp, and T Bone Burnett collaborated on a musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, which made its debut in 2012. The story is based on a house that Mellencamp bought in Indiana that came complete with a ghost story. Legend has it that three siblings were messing around in the woods and one of the brothers accidentally got shot. The surviving brother and sister jumped in the car to go get help, and in their panic, swerved off the road right into a tree and were killed instantly. Of course, the three now haunt the woods by Mellencamp's house.

6. HE PLAYED IN A BAND WITH OTHER SUCCESSFUL AUTHORS.

King played rhythm guitar for a band made up of successful writers called The Rock Bottom Remainders. From 1992 to 2012, the band "toured" about once a year. In addition to King, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Mitch Albom, Barbara Kingsolver, Matt Groening and Ridley Pearson were just some of its other members.

7. HE'S A NATIVE MAINER.

A photo of Stephen King's home in Bangor, Maine.
By Julia Ess - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

King writes about Maine a lot because he knows and loves The Pine Tree State: he was born there, grew up there, and still lives there (in Bangor). Castle Rock, Derry, and Jerusalem's Lot—the fictional towns he has written about in his books—are just products of King's imagination, but he can tell you exactly where in the state they would be if they were real.

8. HE HAS BATTLED DRUG AND ALCOHOL PROBLEMS.

Throughout much of the 1980s, King struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. In discussing this time, he admitted that, "There's one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all. I don't say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page."

It came to a head when his family members staged an intervention and confronted him with drug paraphernalia they had collected from his trash can. It was the eye-opener King needed; he got help and has been sober ever since.

9. THERE WAS A RUMOR THAT HE WROTE A LOST TIE-IN NOVEL.

King was an avid Lost fan and sometimes wrote about the show in his Entertainment Weekly column, "The Pop of King." The admiration was mutual. Lost's writers mentioned that King was a major influence in their work. There was a lot of speculation that he was the man behind Bad Twin, a Lost tie-in mystery, but he debunked that rumor.

10. HE IS SURROUNDED BY WRITERS.

A photo of Stephen King's son, author Joe Hill
Joe Hill
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Stephen isn't the only writer in the King family: His wife, Tabitha King, has published several novels. Joe, their oldest son, followed in his dad's footsteps and is a bestselling horror writer (he writes under the pen name Joe Hill). Youngest child Owen has written a collection of short stories and one novella and he and his dad co-wrote Sleeping Beauties, which will be released later this month (Owen also married a writer). Naomi, the only King daughter, is a minister and gay activist.

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Dedicated Middle School Teacher Transforms His Classroom Into Hogwarts
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Kyle Ely

It would be hard to dread back-to-school season with Kyle Ely as your teacher. As ABC News reports, the instructor brought a piece of Hogwarts to Evergreen Middle School in Hillsboro, Oregon by plastering his classroom with Harry Potter-themed decor.

The journey into the school's makeshift wizarding world started at his door, which was decorated with red brick wall paper and a "Platform 9 3/4" sign above the entrance. Inside, students found a convincing Hogwarts classroom complete with floating candles, a sorting hat, owl statues, and house crests. He even managed to recreate the starry night sky effect of the school’s Great Hall by covering the ceiling with black garbage bags and splattering them with white paint.

The whole project cost the teacher around $300 to $400 and took him 70 hours to build. As a long-time Harry Potter fan, he said that being able to share his love of the book series with his students made it all pay off it. He wrote in a Facebook post, "Seeing their faces light up made all the time and effort put into this totally worth it."

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Though wildly creative, the Hogwarts-themed classroom at Evergreen Middle School isn't the first of its kind. Back in 2015, a middle school teacher in Oklahoma City outfitted her classroom with a potions station and a stuffed version of Fluffy to make the new school year a little more magical. Here are some more unique classroom themes teachers have used to transport their kids without leaving school.

[h/t ABC News]

Images courtesy of Kyle Ely.

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