Novels and Poetry

By Lacey, Barbara E. | Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, March 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Novels and Poetry


Lacey, Barbara E., Transactions of the American Philosophical Society


Thomas's vision of an American nation included a desire to encourage American arts and letters, yet, paradoxically, he based them on the British model. He published fiction and verse by some of the major authors of his day, including American writers William Hill Brown and Mercy Otis Warren, as well as English authors Lawrence Sterne, Henry Fielding, and Samuel Richardson. A brief look at illustrations associated with two examples in this genre will indicate the complexity and interest of image and text, and suggest the overlay of British and American literary forms.

Thomas published William Hill Brown's epistolary novel, The Power of Sympathy, in 1789. Generally accepted as the "first American novel," it was a major cultural landmark of the early republic. Although not immediately a best seller, its publication marks the recognition of the growing popularity of novel reading in America. The Power of Sympathy ostensibly connects extreme sensibility with the social and moral principles underlying Republican virtue, but fascinated the reader with its melodramatic style and plot involving incest and suicide. It has been described aptly as "a didactic essay and a novel. .. shuffled together and bound as a book."1

The main plot deals with the imminent incestuous marriage of Harrington and Harriot, who, they learn, are both children of the elder Harrington, one by his marriage and the second by his mistress. When the relationship is discovered, Harriot dies of shock and sadness, and Harrington commits suicide. A subordinate and equally dismal plot deals with the suicide of Orphelia Shepherd after her seduction by her brother-in-law Martin; it parallels the real-life suicide of Sarah Morton's sister after her alleged seduction by Sarah Morton's husband, all members of a prominent Boston family.

Cathy Davidson, in her analysis of the audience for the epistolary novel, sees a gender division among eighteenth-century readers: whereas women were interested in a scandalous story, ironically, men appreciated a didactic novel that promised to edify the female reader. Both readings were encouraged by the preface, which announced that "the dangerous consequences of seduction are exposed and the advantages of Female Education set forth and recommended."2

The frontispiece (Figure 6.1) by Samuel Hill3 strongly suggests that the publisher's intended audience were female readers. Entitled "The Story of Orphelia," (with the caption, "0 Fatal! Fatal Poison!"), the image captures the climactic moment of the subplot as the betrayed woman sinks to the floor, dropping a goblet filled with poison beside her. An older woman and man, in alarm, rush through the open door to her side, shocked at her state, but too late to prevent the tragedy. The rich draperies, ornate mirror and table, and the figured carpet give evidence of the elite class of the protagonists, while a shaft of light illumines the dark and fatal scene.

Attracted by the frontispiece, a critical reviewer in The Massachusetts Centinel (Feb. 7, 1789), expressed disappointment that not until the end did the text fulfill expectations aroused by the illustration. For this reader, at least, according to Davidson, "the engraving constituted a kind of covenant between the reader and the text, but one which the text only minimally honored." The frontispiece, in this case, had not established the theme of the book, and, the newspaper critic continues, "It is not until we arrive near the end of the work, that we find anything to authorize the title." However, another reviewer, Antonia, in The Herald of Freedom (Feb. 10) countered that "the author [of The Power of Sympathy] 'merits the most grateful acknowledgment from our sex,' because of the 'respect and tenderness' he has shown to 'youthful females.'" Implicit in this second reading is the view that the moral of the frontispiece indeed was bom out in the text. But at the outset, the printer had made a quite direct and visual appeal to the reader by placing the word "seduction" prominently in the front of the book. …

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