This image is the cover for the book Mr. Penrose

Mr. Penrose

An 18th century sailor is cast away in a multi-ethnic New World in this long-neglected classic regarded as the first American novel every written.

Mr. Penrose narrates the adventures of a Llewellin Penrose who flees an unhappy home life to seek his fortune on the high seas. Having learned the sailor’s trade, Penrose survives a series of nautical mishaps, only to be cast adrift on the Mosquito Coast. When rescue finally comes, Penrose refuses to abandon the new home he has made among the Indians.

Though not officially published until 1815—posthumously and bowdlerized—painter and seafarer William Williams’s dynamic adventure was actually written before 1780, making it unjustly forgotten as, arguably, the first American novel. Publishers may have been wary of “a work of imagination”, but Lord Byron could barely contain his enthusiasm for this unique tale: “I have never read so much of a book in one sitting in my life. He kept me up half the night, and made me dream of him the other half.”

Equal parts travel narrative, sea-merchant yarn and historical document, this original version of Mr. Penrose reflects on some of the most pressing moral and social issues of its time: imperialism, racial equality, religious freedom, and the nature of an ethical government. In fact, it contains the first unequivocal critique of slavery in a transatlantic novel and the most realistic portrayals of Native Americans in early American fiction. In the afterword, Sarah Wadsworth imparts new research on the author and his career, shedding light on the novel’s subjects and timely themes, and situating Mr. Penrose at the forefront of the American literary canon.

William Williams, David Howard Dickason

William Williams (1727-1791) was a professional painter and landscape artist who tutored a young Benjamin West. Williams primarily resided in Philadelphia and New York and is thought to have written Mr. Penrose shortly before the Revolutionary War. David Howard Dickason (1907-1974) was Professor of English at Indiana University and a specialist in American literature. He discovered William Williams's original manuscript at Indiana University's Lilly Library.Sarah Wadsworth is Associate Professor of English at Marquette University. She is author of In the Company of Books: Literature and Its "Classes" in Nineteenth-Century America and (with Wayne A. Wiegand) of Right Here I See My Own Books: The Woman's Building Library at the World's Columbian Exposition.

Indiana University Press