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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Spirit of Nationalism Susanna Rowson (c. 1762-1824)

[9059] William Waud, Civilians Entering a Theater (c. 1858-59), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-15679].

Susanna Rowson’s colorful life story in some ways resembles one of the melodramatic plots of her popular novels and plays. Born in Portsmouth, England, Rowson was raised by her father and her aunt when her mother died shortly after childbirth. Her father, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, received a commission in the American colonies and brought his daughter to live there in 1766. Rowson never forgot the physical discomfort of the harrowing ocean voyage that brought her to America (the ship was blown off course by a hurricane and then foundered in an ice storm off Boston Harbor). Settling in Nantasket, Massachusetts, the family enjoyed a comfortable life in the colonies until the Revolutionary War disrupted their situation. Because of her father’s affiliation with English armed forces and his Loyalist sympathies, Rowson and her family became prisoners of war and were held under guard for three years until finally being sent back to England in a prisoner exchange. All of their property was confiscated by American officials.

Back in England, Rowson helped support her now destitute family by working as a governess and publishing novels and poetry. In 1786, she married William Rowson, a hardware merchant, actor, and trumpet player whose heavy drinking made it difficult for him to hold a job. When his hardware business failed, the couple decided to join a Scottish theater company and attempt to earn a living by acting. In 1793, believing they would find greater opportunities on the American stage, the Rowsons immigrated to the United States to appear with Thomas Wignell’s theater company in Philadelphia. While William seemed to have difficulty holding down parts, Susanna played more than fifty-seven roles in two theatrical seasons and wrote several songs and plays for the company.

Rowson also contributed to the family’s finances by arranging for the republication in 1794 of Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth, one of the novels she had originally published in England. (The novel first appeared in 1791 as Charlotte: A Tale of Truth.) The sentimental story of a naive English girl lured to America, seduced, made pregnant, and then abandoned there to die, Charlotte Temple struck a chord with American audiences and became the biggest best-seller in the nation’s history until Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin over half a century later. As literary critics have noted, the book’s power lies in its accessibility and appeal to a broad spectrum of readers; scholarship on inscriptions and marginalia found in extant eighteenth- and nineteenth-century copies of the book reveals that Charlotte Temple was owned by men as well as women and by both wealthy and poor Americans. Although the tale is a rather formulaic example of a seduction novel–a popular genre characterized by its focus on a pathetic woman who has been seduced, abandoned, and left to die–Charlotte Temple touched its American readers profoundly. Many readers were so moved by Rowson’s story and its purported status as a “tale of truth” that they refused to view it as a work of fiction. Thousands made pilgrimages to visit a gravestone in New York’s Trinity Churchyard that was rumored to be Charlotte Temple’s burial place.

Rowson did not own the American copyright to her enormously popular novel, so she made very little money off its best-seller status. In an effort to improve their financial situation, the Rowsons moved to Boston in 1796, where Susanna performed in the newly opened Federal Street Theater. In 1797 she retired from acting to start the Young Ladies’ Academy of Boston, a prestigious school for girls. Dissatisfied with traditional textbooks used for girls’ education, Rowson compiled her own spellers, geographies, and histories for her female pupils. Her school was unique in its progressive curriculum and commitment to providing young women with a serious and thorough education. The academy emphasized not only traditional female subjects such as music, drawing, and domestic economy but also subjects usually taught only to men, like mathematics and science.

Literary critics today disagree about the nature and extent of Rowson’s feminist sympathies. While Charlotte Temple certainly evinces a tendency to view women as weak, helpless, and in need of male protection–its heroine is passive and dies after she is abandoned by the men in her life–the novel has also been read as subtly protesting women’s tenuous position in society. Whatever the politics of her fiction, Rowson’s own life was characterized by a resourcefulness that testifies to the possibilities for women’s independent thought and action in eighteenth-century America.

Teaching Tips

  • In his book Prodigals and Pilgrims, cultural critic Jay Fliegelman argues that the cultural obsession with tales of female seduction in late-eighteenth-century America reflects the nation’s anxiety about its own claims to virtue in its recent revolution against the “patriarchal authority” of England. Ask students what they think of this thesis and how it might apply to Charlotte Temple. You might explain that the figure of the seduced and abandoned woman became central to American fiction after the Revolution and that seduction stories usually ended formulaically with the tragic death of the long-suffering victim of seduction. Ask students to think about what this interest in female virtue and chastity might have signified in the new nation. How might a woman’s “fall” from virtue be read as an allegory of the political and social conditions in the new nation?
  • Rowson frequently breaks into her narration of Charlotte Temple to address her readers directly, offering insights and defenses designed for the “sober matrons,” “wise gentlemen,” and “dear girls” she imagines make up her audience. Ask your students what effect these breaks in the narration have on their experience as readers of the novel. How does Rowson use her authorial voice to forestall criticism, heighten dramatic tension, and manage readers’ reactions to her tale? You might have a student read Rowson’s Preface aloud and then ask the class to analyze what kind of authorial voice she is presenting. What claims is she making for her story? What effect does she hope her novel will have? What tone does she adopt to address her readers?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: How is Charlotte seduced away from her school? According to Rowson’s narration, what decisions and personal qualities lead to Charlotte’s downfall? What lessons does Rowson hope her readers will learn from her novel?
  2. Context: Compare Charlotte Temple to Charlotte Manly in The Contrast. What ideals or stereotypes about womanhood do these characters exemplify? How do their relationships with “rakish” men turn out differently? What effect do you think the genre of each text has on its portrayal of these “fallen women” characters?
  3. Context: In eighteenth-century America, many arbiters of taste condemned novel reading as a trivial or even dangerous occupation for young ladies to engage in. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, viewed novels as a “poison” that could “infect the mind” and warned that “a great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels, and the time lost in that reading which should be instructively employed.” How does Rowson foresee and deflect this kind of criticism in Charlotte Temple? Do you think someone like Jefferson would have been convinced that Rowson’s novel was in fact “wholesome” reading for young American women?
  4. Exploration: Charlotte Temple was the first “best-seller” in American history; it had sold over 50,000 copies by 1812 and has gone through over two hundred editions in the course of its publishing history. The only other pre-twentieth-century American novel to circulate so widely was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s enormously influential Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Why do you think these sentimental novels achieved such phenomenal popularity? What similarities of plot and narrative link Charlotte Temple and Uncle Tom’s Cabin? To what kinds of people were these books designed to appeal?

Selected Archive Items

[3464Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin book cover (1853),
courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin outstripped Rowson’s Charlotte Temple as the best-selling book of the nineteenth century. Both were sentimental novels, a genre that has traditionally been written by women.

[3472Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, cover (1892),
courtesy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Riverside Paper Series, No. 43), Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1892.
This cover of the classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin shows a young African American boy holding a sign, which gives the title, subtitle, and author of the work.

[4060Anonymous, Led Astray (1874),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Music Division.
Illustration for sheet music, words by George Cooper, music by Violetta. Plots of seduction and abandonment and redemption of young women were a staple of sentimental fiction and were used as a quiet justification for women reformers.

[6749Anonymous, The New England Primer (1807),
courtesy of the Gettysburg College Special Collections.
The New England Primer (first published in Boston in 1690) was a popular Puritan textbook designed to promote children’s literacy and religious training. Dissatisfied with such traditional primers for her female students, Susanna Rowson developed her own textbooks.

[8934] Rafia Zafar, Interview: “Sentimental Novel” (2002),
courtesy of Annenberg Media.
Zafar, director of African and Afro-American studies at Washington University, St. Louis, discusses the conventions of the sentimental novel, with reference to Harriet Jacobs.

[9059William Waud, Civilians Entering a Theater (c. 1858-59),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-15679].
Susanna Rowson was a playwright and actress in Philadelphia and London and at the Federal Street Theater in Boston. She also wrote Charlotte Temple, which was the best-selling American novel until Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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