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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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4. Spirit of Nationalism   

4. Spirit of Nationalism

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- William Apess
- J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur
- Jonathan Edwards
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Benjamin Franklin
- Margaret Fuller
- Thomas Jefferson
- Susanna Rowson
- Royall Tyler
- Phillis Wheatley
- Suggested
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Authors: Susanna Rowson (c. 1762-1824)

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

Susanna Rowson Activities
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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.

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