Little Bits of History

The Power of Sympathy

Posted in History by patriciahysell on January 21, 2014
The Power of Sympathy

The Power of Sympathy

January 21, 1789: The Power of Sympathy is published. Also called The Triumph of Nature, it was a sentimental novel written by William Hill Brown. It was written in epistolary form meaning the book reads like a series of documents – usually they are written as a letters but can be diary entries or newspaper clippings. In today’s world they can also be written as blog posts or recordings of radio or TV programs. The term itself comes from the Latin word for letter – epistle. The genre lends itself to a more omniscient narration since each letter is written from the point of view of the “author” of the letter. This can make a novel seem more real.

The Power of Sympathy was published by Isaiah Thomas in Boston. The characters struggled with seduction and passion and what can happen to the poor souls trapped by the intrigue therein. The book points out that if women were taught better morals and the use of rational thinking was freely applied by all, these sins and their consequences might be avoided. The author based his tale on the real life story of Perez Morton’s incestuous seduction of Fanny Apthorp. The New Englander had become famous for seducing his sister-in-law, her subsequent pregnancy, and resulting suicide. Since the scandal had circulated widely, readers of the time would quickly know what events the story was based on.

The story opens as Thomas Harrington tells his friend about his infatuation with Harriot Fawcet and hoping he can make her his mistress. Worthy, the moral friend, encourages Thomas to properly woo Harriot and when this happens, Thomas finds out that she is his illegitimate half-sister. Thomas’s father’s mistress had given birth to Harriot and then passed her off to a family friend to raise and until the youngsters had fallen in love, no one in the town was the wiser. Now the truth came out and the two lovers are mortified to find themselves in an incestuous relationship. Harriot falls into a “grief-stricken consumption” which would be called tuberculosis today. She dies from the disease and Thomas is so depressed and grief stricken that he commits suicide.

This is considered to be the first American novel and like many other early novels was considered to be allegorical as well as a moral tale. Rather than talking about American politics, one could use a story and not get charged with sedition. By stating what types of moral education was needed, it was implied that the best way for the young nation to proceed was along the proscribed lines. The “Sympathy” in the title was often the cause for more grief rather than being a helpful emotion. Another theme was the consequences of seduction could be lurid, long-lived, and eventually fatal. Women, especially, should be careful since the thinking of the time was that men could not.

Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him. – Maya Angelou

Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read. – Groucho Marx

He that composes himself is wiser than he that composes a book. – Benjamin Franklin

Preachers in pulpits talked about what a great message is in the book. No matter what you do, somebody always imputes meaning into your books. – Dr. Seuss

Also on this day: The Evil Weed – In 1908, the Sullivan Ordinance, an early smoking ban, was passed and vetoed.
I Feel … The Need … For Speed – In 1976, the Concorde SST began service.
Miss Sam – In 1960, Little Joe 1B launched successfully and returned to Earth.
No Babies – In 1525, a baptismal ceremony was held in Switzerland.

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