Scholars of material and print culture have recently challenged the theory of an early American public sphere, arguing that the literary landscape of eighteenth-century America was composed instead of fragmented publics, local networks frequently partisan in nature. This essay theorizes how the novel genre functions within these publics by reconsidering the literary career of William Hill Brown, best known as the author of The Power of Sympathy (1789). Reading his lesser-known writings, I argue that Brown was an intellectual for a prominent network—often referred to as the natural aristocracy—and saw the novel genre as a means to disperse his network’s ideology to a growing novel-reading audience. I conclude by reevaluating The Power of Sympathy in light of Brown’s commitment to the natural aristocracy, which provides a model for considering the novel genre within the framework of local publics rather than as part of a universal public sphere.

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