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  • Prodigal Daughters: Susanna Rowson's Early American Women
  • Karen A. Weyler
Prodigal Daughters: Susanna Rowson's Early American Women. By Marion Rust. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008. Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia. xvi + 312 pp. $59.95/$24.95 paper.

The "prodigal daughters" to whom Marion Rust's title refers are not just Susanna Rowson's protagonists, but the women in the early national period who violated social customs by seeking public voices, respectable work, and alternatives to a hierarchical marriage. Late eighteenth-century America came to embrace the prodigal son, whose failings, like Benjamin Franklin's errata, were often generously viewed as exercises in independence and individualism. Women lacked the same latitude; some mistakes, such as extra-marital pregnancy, indelibly marked their bodies and changed their lives. And yet, as Rust cautions, generalizing about gender issues in the thirty-odd-year period that comprised the early Republic risks vast oversimplification, for the status of women changed decade by decade. While contextualizing her study with discussions of Rowson's contemporaries, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Judith Sargent Murray, Rust uses Rowson's career as a lens through which to explore these changes, arguing that Rowson's "creations both register and inform the cultural moment in which post-Revolutionary female intellectual development, imagined community, and same-sex sociability became widespread" (298).

Historians such as Linda Kerber, Susan Branson, Karin Wulf, and Mary Kelley generally agree that while there was little change in women's legal status, their social, economic, and political opportunities expanded during the Revolutionary period. In the decades thereafter, certain public roles contracted as gender came to trump class as a political signifier; yet at this same time, women's educational and authorial opportunities blossomed. Building upon their arguments while relying more heavily on literary sources, Rust argues that the increasing emphasis in the 1790s on the rhetoric of separate spheres arose not to block women's public activities but as a reaction to the already-existing political activity of the 1790s, such as that manifested by Rowson's plays and [End Page 162] orations in Federalist-affiliated theatrical venues. In particular, Rust charts the growing "incompatibility between women's expanding influence" as authors, teachers, and charitable workers "and an increasing emphasis on domestic containment and self-regulation" (260).

Rowson explored alternatives to this incompatibility throughout her long public career. Using Charlotte Temple and Charlotte's Daughters (better known as Lucy Temple) as bookends, Rust traces a trajectory in Rowson's cultural productions from passive victimhood, indecisiveness, and isolation to agency and extensive social connection. From Charlotte Temple, to Trials of the Human Heart, to plays, songs, and orations, to the texts associated with school keeping (especially textbooks, school records, and correspondence), Rowson moves toward advocating the necessity for women to engage in active learning and to have opportunities for respectable work and the practice of active virtue via philanthropy. Her eponymous heroine Lucy Temple represents the apogee of this fictional trajectory, and yet even Lucy cannot have it all. Despite her decisiveness and agency, she is denied the intimacy of marriage when her lover is revealed to be her half-brother.

In an engaging chapter titled "Novel Schoolrooms," Rust weaves together a discussion of Lucy Temple with Rowson's school teaching experiences to argue that Lucy has the potential to create homosocial intimacy through the maternal and sororal bonds among teachers and students. Rust asserts that "Rowson's emphases on active learning, on affective bonds as the basis of female scholarly knowledge, and on female scholarly communities" created "through the pages of a textbook" helped Rowson instantiate active communities of elite women whose connections could serve as an "alternative to a heteroerotic marital economy" (278). Readers who know Hannah Foster's The Boarding School, which anticipates some of these issues by emphasizing the importance of same-sex bonding, may wonder what Rust thinks of it, since she includes no reference to it. Of course, Rowson's vision of teaching is markedly less hierarchical than that proffered by Foster.

Splendidly researched, Prodigal Daughters has much to teach us about the development of what Judith Sargent Murray...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-0643
Print ISSN
0748-4321
Pages
pp. 162-164
Launched on MUSE
2009-06-03
Open Access
No
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