Jan. 21, 2010


by Michael Dennis Browne

Today I explained telepathy to you,
         and telephone, and television,
                  on the way to day care,

and I said, sometimes when I'm at work
         I'll think of you,
                  and if I could send you that thought with my mind,

you'd get it right then,
         and maybe you'd smile, stopping a moment at whatever
                  you were doing, or maybe not

but just going on with it, making a mask out of paper plates
         and orange and green cards
                  with markers and scissors and paste,

or screaming circles in the gym
         either being a monster
                  or being chased by a gang of them, but still you'd get

the picture I was beaming
         and you'd brighten inside and flash me something back,
                  which I'd get, where I was, and smile at.

That's telepathy, I said
         pulling into the parking lot,
                  looking at you in the mirror.

"Telepathy" by Michael Dennis Browne, from You Won't Remember This. © Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1789 that the first American novel was published in Boston. The Power of Sympathy: Or, the Triumph of Nature. Founded in Truth, by William Hill Brown, (books by this author) was the first novel to be published in America that was also written by someone who was born here. America's first novel is not light reading. The weekend before it was published, the Boston newspaper Herald of Freedom made this announcement: "An American Novel. We learn that there is now in the Press in this town a Novel, dedicated to the young ladies, which is intended to enforce attention to female education, and to represent the fatal consequences of Seduction. We are informed that one of the incidents upon which the Novel is founded, is drawn from a late unhappy suicide. We shall probably soon be enabled to lay before our readers some account of so truly Novel a work, upon such interesting subjects."

It is an epistolary novel, told completely in letters. It opens with a letter from Harrington to his friend, Worthy. Harrington begins: "You may now felicitate me — I have had an interview with the charmer I informed you of. Alas! Where were the thoughtfulness and circumspection of my friend Worthy? I did not possess them."

The Power of Sympathy is a cautionary tale whose plot and subplots feature several young couples. Harriot and Harrington are lovers who discover that they are half-siblings and their relationship is incestuous, and Harriot is so upset that she becomes ill and dies, and then Harrington kills himself. There is Ophelia, who is seduced by her sister's husband, Martin, becomes pregnant, and kills herself. Fidelia is "carried off by a ruffian" a few days before her wedding, and her fiancé kills himself because of the shame. And finally, there is a young woman who gives birth to an illegitimate child with an unknown father, and then dies.

The Power of Sympathy was published anonymously. As the Boston paper hinted, the story of Ophelia and Martin was a thinly veiled version of a contemporary scandal, that of a woman named Fanny Apthorp who got pregnant by her sister's husband, Perez Morton, and killed herself. The details were so fleshed out that for many years everyone wrongly assumed that The Power of Sympathy was written by the poet Sarah Wentworth Morton, because she was Fanny's sister and Perez Morton's wife. But we now know that it was written by William Hill Brown, who in fact was good friends with the Apthorps and the Mortons, and seems to have remained so after the publication of the book, even though he had exposed their family troubles in detail to the public.

It's the birthday of writer Louis Menand, (books by this author) born in Syracuse, New York (1952). He is a Harvard professor and an academic whose first book was Discovering Modernism: T. S. Eliot and His Context (1987). But he is also popular outside of academia — he is a staff writer for The New Yorker,and he writes for The New York Review of Books. In 2001, he published The Metaphysical Club, a history of intellectual ideas in America, particularly the shift in thinking that happened after the Civil War.

It's the birthday of literary critic Richard Palmer Blackmur, born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1904.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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