TOWARDS A THEORY OF AESTHETIC EFFECT:
WILLIAM HILL BROWN’S THE POWER OF SYMPATHY
“I am only an untutored, though self-sufficient historian of fiction.”
(William Hill Brown 1807, viii)
William Hill Brown (1765-1793) has been known primarily as the author of the first American novel, The Power of Sympathy (1789). In his novel, Brown follows the formal tradition of the English epistolary novel of seduction, a genre which provides the reader with positive models for imitation and negative ones from which the reader can learn what constitutes right and wrong behavior. According to the advertisements of Brown’s first novel, the book was apparently “intended to enforce attention to female education, and to represent the fatal consequences of Seduction” (1789, quoted in Walser 1982/83, 65). Although Brown claims the purpose to be didactic, the meanings of the instructive lessons are not so obvious. The plot becomes entangled, as the reader learns that the young heroes, Harriot and Harrington, who wish to be wed, are half-siblings due to the infidelity of Harrington’s father. Both die, Harriot brokenhearted and Harrington driven in his grief to suicide.
Given the readers’ fascination with themes of suicide and seduction, the immediate response to Brown’s novel, however, was one of “disappointement” (Anon. 1789, 168). Reviewers, who expected a useful tale, complained that the “reader is left to determine” (168) what the moral of the tale is all about. Others asserted that given the outright didacticism on the titlepage and in the preface, the book does nothing to authorize the title. Later critics frequently read the book as a failed attempt to imitate the English novel of seduction and blamed Brown’s novel for its “poor characterization, loose motivation, [and] graceless digressions” (Cowie 1951, 11). Even students today are puzzeld by this book and its lack of coherence and closure.
However, contrary to a reading of the novel in terms of a failed attempt to imitate established genres, I would like to suggest that Brown’s failure signals the cultural potential of the early American novel: The novel’s explicit violation of readerly expectations creates a rather ‘open text’. Brown transforms the fictional text into a “laboratory” (P. Ricoeur), in which he confronts the reader with a multiplicity of histories and multiple viewpoints. The fictional text challenges the monological standards of the dominant ways of world making, especially those of historiography, religion, and moral philosophy. Instead of pouring out moral lessons onto the minds of the young readers, the novel invites them to realize how morals and truth come into existence.
Brown’s epistolary novel inscribes a ‘double gesture’: on the one hand, it offers guardianship in terms of interpretive authorities (for instance, the “mentor-like lessons and sermons” of the tutor-figures in the text); the novel also pretends to ‘satisfy’ specific readerly expectations that are closely related to prevailing aesthetic practices and narrative conventions (for instance, the title page with its illustration of Ophelia’s suicide). On the other hand, however, the novel’s multivocality, the embedded tales, the double narrators, the competing viewpoints and interpretations invert the reliability of the authorial voices in the text and their explanation of the death of the young heroes in terms of a “will of providence.” The novel’s multiple narrative voices engage the reader in the construction of meaning, and, in doing so, the reader learns that the “sacred” truths (PS, XXIX, 2:11) dished out by the guardian-figures in their “monitorial lessons” (PS, III, 1:15) are rather made than found.
Brown’s novel finally illustrates that the ‘power of sympathy’ as a “power in the mind, of chusing good and evil”––as Benjamin Rush (1786, 5) defines it––has come apart. It fails in explaining the “consequences of seduction.” Furthermore, absorbing the reader into the murky correspondence of several characters, Brown’s epistolary novel bases itself on a theory of narrative and aesthetic effect that inverts the truth-fiction relation. While destabilizing the truth claims of the dominant system of guardianship, the novel reinscribes fiction as ‘history’. Contrary to the suspicion of fictionality in the early Republic, Brown demonstrates that it is the fictional text that ‘enlightens’ the reader’s mind “to remark the difference between truth and fiction” (PS, XXIX, 2:5) Taken in this sense, fiction supersedes history, and the novel, if you will, is “Founded in Truth,” and thus keeps at last one of its initial promises.
THESES FOR DISCUSSION:
1) The strategies of inversion re-authorize the early American novel as an imaginary space for the formulation of impulses otherwise suppressed within the “Republic of letters.” The fictional text contributes to the very independence for which it symbolically punishes its heroes.
2) The collapse of difference (truth vs. fiction) demonstrates the early American novel’s intention to enter into negotiations with history. The novel reopens questions about the discursive order / hierarchy, Americans had acquired from Puritanism and the Scottish Common Sense philosophy.
3) By denying a unifying voice, the novel sets up its cultural potential in terms of a second narrative. The novel makes readers to draw on their own mental images and feelings in the the actualization of the text. This articulation effect contributes new elements to the ongoing conversation of a culture and thus functions as a source of constant redescription, renewal and, potentially, cultural regeneration.
Anon. “Review of The Power of Sympathy [Civil Spy].” Massachusetts Centinel (1789), 168.
Brown, William Hill. The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature. Founded in Truth. 2 vols. Repr. New York: Columbia UP, 1937 .
Brown, William Hill. Ira and Isabella: or, The Natural Children. A Novel Founded in Fiction. Boston: Belcher and Armstrong, 1807.
Cowie, Alexander, The Rise of the American Novel. New York: , 1951.
Davidson, Cathy. “Flirting with Destiny: Ambivalence and Form in the Early American Sentimental Novel.” Studies in American Fiction 10 (1982): 17-39.
Fluck, Winfried. “Fictionalizing Acts.” Amerikastudien 31 (1986): 5-15.
Iser, Wolfgang. Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989.
Rush, Benjamin. An Oration, Delivered before the American Philosophical Society, Held in Philadelphia on the 27th of February, 1786; Containing an Enquiry into the Influence of Physical Causes upon the Moral Faculty. Philadelphia, 1786.
Scheiding, Oliver. Geschichte und Fiktion: Zum Funktionswandel des frühen amerikanischen Romans. Paderborn: Schöningh, 2003 (forthcoming).
Walser, Richard. “Boston’s Reception of the First American Novel.” Early American Literature 17 (1982/83): 65-68.
 William Hill Brown, The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature. Founded in Truth, 2 vols, repr. New York: Columbia UP, 1937 ; subsequent citations will be parenthetical references to this edition and abbreviated PS in the text.
 Cf. Anon. (1789, 168): “Well, what is the Triumph of Nature? A young man, and a young woman having mutually become fond, because they could not gratify their desires, she dies; which is very natural for a woman to do. But unfortunately, he kills himself, which is very unnatural for a man to do. Now, in which of these instances is the great Triumph of Nature––the reader is left to determine.”
 The assumption of this paper is that functions of fiction are not stable, and can thus not be adequately described by any approach resting its interpretation on any single criterion for determining the potential and purpose of fiction. Instead, it seems much more adequate to conceptualize the historical development of fiction as a process of constant interaction between conflicting demands and possibilities. Seen this way, fiction is, by definition, an extremely unstable system that is pressurized and transformed, not only by history, but by its own inner conflicts and contradictions, or by what one could call its inner eventfulness.
 Consciously or unconsciously, every fictional text has to base itself on such a theory of aesthetic effect, on a theory of how the text may achieve its cultural aims through certain narrative and aesthetic strategies. As Winfried Fluck (1986) and Wolfgang Iser (1989) have shown, literary texts do this by setting up analogies by linking the subjective and the social, and, in doing so, fictional texts create models of their own cultural and aesthetic potential in terms of second narratives or a double reference in the act of reception. Likewise, Cathy Davidson has argued that early American novels exhibit an “order of duplicity” as authors such as William Hill Brown, Charles Brockden Brown, Susanna Rowson, Hannah Webster Foster, and others “expanded the action and the issues in their plots to engage more fully, aesthetically and intellectually, their readers’ attention” (1982, 20); see also my forthcoming book, Geschichte und Fiktion: Zum Funktionswandel des frühen amerikanischen Romans (2003).
 Cf. the debates on the usefulness of literary discourses in The Power of Sympathy: “A KNOWLEDGE of HISTORY which exhibits to us in one view the rise, progress and decay of nations––which points to the advancement of the mind in society, and the improvements in the arts which adorn human nature, comes with propriety under the notice of a lady. To observe the origin of civilization––the gradual progress of society and the refinements of manners, policy, morality and religion––to observe the progression of mankind from simplicity to luxury, from luxury to effeminacy, and the gradual steps in the decline of empire, and the dissolution of states and kingdoms, must blend that happy union of instruction and entertainment which never fails to win our attention to the pursuit of all subjects” (PS, XI, 1:58f.).