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JULIA STERN Working Through the Frame: Charlotte Temple and the Poetics of Maternal Melancholia o critic of the early American novel has explained in any convincing way the enduring popularity of Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple (1791), a seemingly conventional eighteenth-century tale of seduction and abandonment that unfolds against the backdrop of transatlantic emigration and the coming ofthe American revolution. From its first American printing in 1794 well into the twentieth century , readers have wept, grieved, and purchased copies of Rowson's novel at astonishing rates.1 Scholars as various as Herbert Ross Brown, writing on the American sentimental novel of the 1940s, and Jay Fliegelman and Cathy N. Davidson, whose recent studies of the early American period and its fiction have transformed our understanding of the genre, all classify Charlotte Temple as the first American bestseller, and all three remark upon Charlotte's deep and enduring appeal.2 Despite this sustained attention to Rowson's story, the source ofCharlotte's capacity to provoke affective response in an audience whose constitution has changed significantly over two hundred years remains curiously elusive.3 By focusing exclusively on the inner story of Charlotte's woe, scholars have failed to recognize that the powers of readerly sympathy the novel conjures emanate from a different, and an unlikely, place: the framing discourse of Rowson's narrator, a symbolic mother figure who seizes hold of and dominates the novel world with remarkable authority. Arizona Quarterly Volume 49 Number 4, Winter 1993 Copyright © 1993 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 Julia Stern What compels us to lose ourselves in the seemingly primitive fable that is Charlotte Temple lies not in the framed narrative of virtue imperiled , but in the figure working through the frame: the maternal voice that presides over and attempts to control the losses exacted within her narrative. Without its complex narratology, Charlotte Temple would remain a simple story of seduction and abandonment, indistinguishable from the work ofother eighteenth-century sentimental writers. At best, it might retain some historical significance as the inaugural women's narrative of this American tradition. What sets Charlotte Temple apart from the conventions that would seem to define it is its unique mode of performing loss: its distinctive narrative form makes Charlotte Temple an extraordinary artifact, possessed of a specifically gendered mode of cultural power. In order to reconstruct the cultural force that underwrites Charlotte Temple's capacity to compel, we must consider not only the framed tale of seduction, but also the significance of the frame, not simply the narrative matter of Charlotte, but also its manner, expressed in disruptions and discontents. As we unpack the complexity of Charlotte's concentric narratives and explore the ways in which the outer story permeates the inner, we will come to a better understanding of Rowson's contribution to a subtle and important cultural conversation concerning gender and loss that was taking place in the post-Revolutionary context of the early American novel.4 The key to much that remains unexplained about both Charlotte Temple and late eighteenth-century American fiction in general is contained within the dynamics of narrative form. Reading for the poetics of this form clarifies both how and why it is that Charlotte Temple occupies a central place in the cultural and representational history of an affect, the feminization of loss that pervades late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American sentimental fiction. At the heart of Charlotte's performance of such loss lies a feminine representation, the novel's narrator, whose symbolic maternal voice permeates the framed fictional world. This unnamed and overly present narrator functions as the novel's absent emblem of matriarchal power, and it is she who does Charlotte Temple's most important cultural work.5 The symbolic mother stands in analogous relation to the "patriarchal authority" that Fliegelman identifies as central to classic early American novels of the family in distress.6 Literally absent from the fiction, Charlotte Temple fated to remain a disembodied figure, Rowson's narrator never achieves representational status as a dramatic character. Her force is metaphorical . In fact, the narrator's maternal authority needs no augmentation by visual representation, and actually is enhanced by its non-corporeal...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 1-32
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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