- Prodigal Daughters: Susanna Rowson's Early American Women
In Prodigal Daughters, Marion Rust offers a carefully researched, nuanced reinterpretation of the work and career of Susanna Rowson, one of the most important writers of the early Republic. Although historians and literary critics have long recognized the importance of Rowson's best-seller Charlotte Temple, Rust's study resituates that novel in the context of the author's broader corpus and, in so doing, challenges some widely held ideas about early Republican women's relationship to authorship and public life. The first monograph-length study in decades to be devoted entirely to Rowson, Rust's project brings a fresh approach to the traditional life-and-works study. Rowson's biography, interpreted largely in terms of her various performances of self, is important to the overall argument, but does not drive the book's organization.
Chapter 1 re-reads Charlotte Temple, arguing that Charlotte's lack of agency, as reflected in her inability to act or even to acknowledge her own feelings, is the primary factor in her tragedy. For the rest of Rowson's career, Rust argues, she will try to solve a problem she posed in this famous novel: how to exercise agency within the social [End Page 282] circumscription of both action and affect. Following this text-focused chapter with one that analyzes Rowson's career in terms of self-representation and public performance, Rust contrasts Rowson's famous and passive character Charlotte with Rowson's famous and incredibly active persona, Susanna Rowson. Chapters 3-5 return to Rowson's texts, examining other revisions or alternatives to the constricted world of Charlotte Temple, specifically in the wide-ranging Trials of the Human Heart, in Rowson's plays, and in Lucy Temple.
Rust's careful attention to partisan politics is welcome; too often critics elide early women writers' political allegiances into a general program of female solidarity. Rust contends that for Rowson and others (notably Judith Sargent Murray), progressive attitudes toward gender were not only compatible with a conservative adherence to Federalist doctrine, but that Federalism enabled their public advocacy of progressive gender ideas. This analysis should prompt more and fuller considerations of the relationship of feminism to early Republican party politics. While it is easy enough to produce counter-examples of women who were able to express progressive ideas about gender while aligned with Jeffersonian republicanism (Mercy Otis Warren, Margaretta V. Faugeres, and Leonora Sansay are all notable examples), it is also true that these women, Warren accepted, did not rival Rowson's prominence as an author.
Also salutary is Rust's attention to the relation between ostensibly didactic writing and the teaching that went on in Rowson's academy. With Mary Kelley's Learning to Stand and Speak (University of North Carolina Press, 2008), Rust's volume should spur continued analysis of the role of education in antebellum American women's writing and experience. Finally, Rust offers throughout a careful analysis of the mechanisms of sentimentality as both constraining and liberating. In both its specific analysis of Rowson and her work and its delineation of the cultural work of early modern women's writing, Prodigal Daughters will be essential reading for those interested in antebellum literature, the history of sentimentality, and women's history.