The Triumph of Nature is a Human Law: On the First American Novel

Jove decadent. Després del ball, (Decadent young woman. After the dance) (1899), a 46.5 × 56 cm oil on canvas by Ramon Casas (1866-1932), located in the Museum of Montserrat.

We have just passed the anniversary of the publication of the first American novel, which came out in January 1789. A relatively short morality tale, William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, or The Triumph of Nature, makes a good case for a North American origin of the “Telenovela,” with its plotlines involving passionate love, complicated social entanglements, and tragic endings.

The whole narrative unfolds through the conceit of postal correspondence between its characters, providing ample monologuing space for its several, perfectly politically incorrect sermons on the evils of “seduction.” Seduction, specifically of young women, is not really attributed to the concupiscence of young men—desire is not here so autonomous a force as in a Whitman or a D’Annunzio. Rather, it is principally the result of immoderate, romantic sympathies.

We begin with the confession of a gentleman by the name of Thomas Harrington in a letter to his friend, Jack Worthy. Introducing the novel’s principal categories, Thomas waxes on “grace” completing “nature,” but we are quickly led to understand that, for him, grace is all tied up with those powerful emotions presently possessing him (“sympathy”). Between invocations of the god of love and not entirely convincing laments that his soul is caught between the moralist and the amoroso, Thomas reveals his intention to court a certain Harriot Fawcet—this despite his father’s ill-feelings on the matter. Court is not really the right word, as Thomas initially intends to woo Harriot into an illicit arrangement. Jack Worthy, however, living up to his name, insists his correspondent carefully consider the matter and, if it is to be pursued, that he make Harriot a wife, assuming paternal approval can be secured. Thomas quickly comes around on this point, but his allegiance to marriage, we intuit, seems to proceed from the same intemperance of character as his previous willingness to elope. Thomas is never really free from the sway of passion.

For her part, a family friend called Eliza Holmes advises Harrington’s sister, Myra, against excessive romanticism, for “many fine girls have been ruined by reading novels,” and a woman “unsuspicious of deceit … is easily deceived.” I have described the novel’s sermonizing as politically incorrect, but it is not so for devaluing its female characters, on the contrary, as Brown ventriloquizes through Eliza writes: 

it is a matter of regret that American literature boasts so few productions from the pens of the ladies … Self-complacency is a most necessary requirement—for the value of a woman will always be commensurate to the opinion she entertains of herself. A celebrated European wit, in a letter to a lady, concenters much good advice in the short rule of conduct: “Reverence Thyself.” I was this morning reading Swift’s letter to a very young lady, on her marriage. Although this famous writer is not celebrated for delicacy or respect towards us [women], yet I wish some of his observations contained less truth—If you are in company, says this writer, when the conversation turns on the manners and customs of remote nations, or on books in verse or prose, or on the nature and limits of virtue and vice, it is a shame for a lady not to relish such discourses, not to improve by them, and endeavor by reading and information, to have her share in those entertainments, rather than turn aside, as is the usual custom…

Female education and “self-reverence” is presented as a means for virtue and avoiding the ills of excessive “sympathy.” It will be Eliza who, eventually, thwarts Thomas’ designs on Harriot, for, knowing the Harrington clan well and for many years, she is able to reveal to the budding couple that they are, in fact, half-siblings. (Like Worthy, Eliza Holmes lives up to her name by revealing the truth of the situation, albeit Sherlock Holmes would not be published for another century.) Thomas’ father, it turns out, had an affair with Harriot’s mother, Maria, who birthed the resulting child and then committed suicide, for “he who had seduced her from her duty and her virtue was the first to brand her with the disgraceful epithets of undutiful and unchaste.” The whole affair was kept secret to avoid a scandal. 

Learning this, Harriot promptly falls into a state of intense grief and illness from which she will not recover. Thomas, for his part, kills himself under the influence of romantic literature the force of which he was not mature enough to detach from. Specifically, a copy of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is found by the young man’s lifeless body, reminding us of Eliza’s warning to Myra about novels, lest they be read as a one-sided critique of the female gender.

The story is a tragedy, not only because some of its protagonists die, but because the comedic theme of romantic love overcoming barriers is, in the case of Thomas and Harriot, entirely out of the question. Writes Northrop Frye:

The obstacles to the hero’s desire, then, form the action of the comedy, and the overcoming of them the comic resolution. The obstacles are usually parental, hence comedy often turns on a clash between a son’s and a father’s will. Thus the comic dramatist as a rule writes for the younger men in his audience, and the older members of almost any society are apt to feel that comedy has something subversive about it.

Here, the father is indeed an obstacle, but not one that can be dismissed, and so the grave violation of nature exacts its penalty. The full title does not present us with two alternatives, but with the beginning and the end of the narrative: First The Power of Sympathy, a sibling sympathy the characters obscenely interpret as romantic attraction; then, The Triumph of Nature, a tragic end for them who transgressed her bounds.

There is something to the idea that we might confuse what is merely familiar, what reminds us of our home or ourselves (a sister), with what lies ahead for us, what completes us (a wife). Anytime we choose comfort over destiny, or pleasure over potential, we are, in some sense, acting incestuously, remaining in the Chaldees rather than venturing into a promised land. The former is a narcissistic search for our own self, whereas the latter is a genuinely adventurous yearning for that which might help perfect us. This, I suggest, is the analogy between sympathy-as-vice and incest that underpins Brown’s novel. 

By understanding sympathy in this way—as a kind of solipsism—we can see how the sympathy between siblings and the sympathy Thomas feels for literary tragic figures he sees himself in, are one and the same. Sympathy, here, is just excessive attachment to one’s inner life, to one’s self-image, and to one’s strong emotions. 

It could be argued that, if not taken for a kind of symbol of solipsism, the fact of consanguinity (which was based on some real, widely-publicized case at the time) risks weakening the general argument, as it seems unrelated to the ills of seduction as such. This is not really so, since Harriot is precisely the product of the older Harrington’s transgressions, and Brown’s point is that, where marriage is not respected, lineages are not properly tracked, and a terrible confusion can result. Excessive regard for one’s own feelings manifests, then, as a blurring of proper boundary—in this case, of the line between one family and another. Paradoxically, too much sympathy makes us selfish—obsessed with our feelings and how others stimulate these. Meanwhile, in this novel, “nature” stands for the inevitability of limits, borders, hierarchies that will put sympathy in its place and make age-old laws respected.

We cannot help but read some social commentary here as well—in order for social norms not to cannibalize themselves, they must respect proper limits. It was a desire to avoid losing social standing that led to the suppression of Harriot’s true parentage, but this ultimately interferes with a far greater social good, the avoidance of incest. The triumph of nature in the novel is brought about through a family acquaintance that reveals the secret, preferring to abide by natural law than by a desire to avoid scandal. This almost presents an ideal-type of the American cultural equation: a moralistic belief that nature herself avenges transgression, and a rejection of the kind of social rigidity that might keep people ignorant. 

Brown’s titular “nature” requires—acts through—human agency, and specifically female human agency. In this novel, the masculine appears largely (though not exclusively) in an unflattering light. Two generations of Harrington men are responsible for a multigenerational tragedy, one that began with Maria. The Harringtons followed their wants, which turn out to be unnatural precisely because they contradict the social order. If what triumphs at the end is nature, then what led Harrington senior to have an affair and Harrington junior to pursue Harriot is not nature. Nature, proper, is of a piece with the social rectitude of a Jack Worthy or an Eliza Holmes. These dispensers of good advice and respect for family relations and marriage are nature’s agents. The natural is not spontaneity and whim, which is how we tend to invoke the term today, but rather a lofty and more moral category, alike Alain de Lille’s in “De planctu Naturae.” 

It seems appropriate that, at the dawn of the North American cultural journey, we should find an author warning of excessive sympathy—excessive feeling, excessive romantic longing. Odes to liberty and industry, and a messianic urge were all present, but so too a restraining backward glance. Today, what Brown understands by sympathy is more or less the fulcrum of Americanizing, post-modernity, for what standard can legitimately arrest the individuals from pursuing his feelings, “being himself,” even unto desperation? Beyond this, as always, is nature in the higher sense and the inevitability of limits.

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.


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