William Hill Brown wrote the first American novel

Posted8/21/2012 2:28 PM

You wanted to know

"Who was the first American to write a novel?" asked students in Jen Janik's third grade class at Big Hollow Elementary School in Ingleside.


By Hope Babowice

Kids Ink

Can a place like the Greek-god hangout, Camp Half-Blood, exist where three teenagers battle fierce gods as they attempt to rescue a goddess and escape to San Francisco?

Rick Riordan wrote that improbable tale in his best-selling novel "The Lost Hero," the first in a series that follows the three teens as they blaze through time, bringing them into the world of the ancient Greek gods as they learn about life, their personal strengths, and each other.

Writers of novels create detailed characters, settings and story lines that place the reader alongside fictional heroes and villains, developing enough details to make the reader intimately connected to the book's people and their actions.

There are many kinds of novels available on bookstore shelves, online and in libraries, including mystery, science fiction, romance, fantasy, horror, westerns and historical novels. There are book clubs for readers of specific novel types.

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William Hill Brown is generally believed to have written the first American novel, "The Power of Sympathy," published in Boston in 1791, which relates a tragic love story. Brown's characters used letters to describe themselves and the action in the story. This type of novel is called "epistolary," from the word "epistle," or letter. The writing style provides a series of letters or documents to chronicle the story.

"The epistolary novel is a style that is still sometimes in use, but it is generally associated with the 18th century," said Liesel Olson, director of the Scholl Center for American History and Culture at Chicago's Newberry Library. "The growth of interest in the individual and of private life is one of the cultural contexts for the rise of the novel, both in America and elsewhere. The moralism and sentimentalism of Brown's novel is fairly typical of the 18th century as well."

Just 100 years before Brown's novel was published, the literacy rate in the colonies was 60 percent for males. By the time the novel was sold in a Boston book store, as much as 75 percent of the population could read at a time prior to the existence of public schools.

Only a few years after Hill's novel was published, authors in the new United States created a unique writing style.

"The early 1800s was a period when writers developed distinctly American styles," Olson said. "Interestingly, there were just as many women authors as male."

You can scroll through the pages of a digital version of "The Power of Sympathy" by accessing Hathitrust at www.hathitrust.org. Hathitrust is a partnership of more than 60 major research institutions and Google that offers more than 10.5 million digital volumes.

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