William Hill Brown was born in Boston in November of 1765.
Much of Brown’s personal history has been left unrecorded: only three examples of his handwriting remain.
Two of these examples are simply inscriptions in books.
The most telling of the three examples, however, was a letter that Brown wrote to a friend on April 29, 1784.
The letter reveals that his appearance reflects that of an “Old Dr. Chauncy,” suggesting a small, frail stature.
Brown also reveals in his letter that he was victim of a debilitating illness which kept him indoors for approximately four months.
The Power of Sympathy was William Brown’s first novel and considered the first American novel.
With this work, Brown differentiates American literature from British literature by the American setting.
The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature Founded in Truth mirrors a local New England scandal involving Brown’s neighbor Perez Morton’s incestuous seduction of Fanny Apthorp; Apthorp was Morton’s sister-in-law.
Apthorp became pregnant and committed suicide, but Morton was not legally punished.
The scandal was widely known, so most readers were able to quickly identify the “real” story behind the fiction:
“in every essential, Brown’s story is an indictment of Morton and an exoneration of Fanny Apthorp,” with “Martin” and “Ophelia” representing Morton and Apthorp, respectively.
Brown also wrote “Harriot, Or The Domestick Reconciliation” as well as the serial essay “The Reformer,” both published by Isaiah Thomas’ in the Massachusetts Magazine.
Brown went on to write the tragedy West Point Preserved, about the British spy, Major John André.
William Hill Brown died in North Carolina on September 2, 1793, at the age of 27.
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