- Susanna Rowson and Her Critics, Moving Beyond Charlotte Temple:A Foreword
From nearly the moment when Charlotte Temple (1791, 1794) was first published in the United States, the novel was the object of significant attention.1 Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, readers were fascinated with the storyline of wronged young womanhood, and they evidently identified with Charlotte or used her plight both to display their own powers of sympathy and to shore up their understanding of moral probity and the proper conduct of young women. People flocked to Charlotte's supposed grave in New York City. One nineteenth-century historian of American culture believed he could identify the house where Charlotte—whose fictional character was probably not based on a real-life story, despite the author's protests to the contrary—had lived in the city.2 According to Rowson's highly sympathetic nineteenth-century biographer, Elias S. Nason, the very popularity of the novel indicated it belonged among all "works of genius."3
The novel continued to fascinate readers during the twentieth century. To be sure, some of the late nineteenth- and earlier twentieth-century commentators did not necessarily approve of Charlotte Temple's sentimentalist literary devices. Nor did they agree about its quality. In an era when literary studies was entering a particularly highbrow turn, W. P. Trent and John Erskine in Great American Writers remarked that Susanna Rowson was read only in "unsophisticated circles," and Carl Van Doren literally sniffed that Rowson's readers were "housemaids and shopgirls," the kind of readers attracted by the author's use of "every device known to the romancer."4 Such dismissals as these did not sway many modern scholarly and general readers, however. In 1933, R.W.G. Vail found sufficient interest in Rowson's novel that he put together a bibliography of its many [End Page vii] printings. Vail estimated that Charlotte Temple, "the most popular of all American novels" before Uncle Tom's Cabin, was likely read by more than half a million readers during the century and a half after its publication.5 Given the novel's popularity, it is not surprising that it has been reprinted over 160 times and translated into nine different languages.
Indeed, Charlotte Temple's popularity was renewed for current generations of readers after Cathy N. Davidson published her book Revolution and the Word along with a new edition of the novel in 1986.6 Davidson's effort brought the novel to the attention of a new generation of scholars, prompting critical commentary across the last two decades that has surpassed in quantity and complication the evaluations of the novel made during the two centuries after its publication.7 Among Davidson's objectives was to find a feminist and sympathetic undercurrent in the novel. The impact of Davidson's work is immeasurable. Since the appearance of Revolution and the Word, scholars have been reevaluating the sentimental tradition and reconceiving what it might have meant to be "feminist" in Rowson's own day, emphasizing the novel's feminist but constrained message to young women about the problems of having neither a suitable education nor a foundation in social exchange sufficient to thwart the dastardliness of the contemporary social world.
As the editors of this volume rightly attest in the Introduction that follows, critical attention to the career of Susanna Rowson has undeniably of late focused on the novel, Charlotte Temple. Yet this seems more a quirk of contemporary critical habit than a sustained and dominant articulation across the centuries. That is, attention to Charlotte Temple notwithstanding, Susanna Rowson has also been praised, in former times, for her significant achievements in geography studies and studies in education; for the fostering of the intellectual, artistic, and social lives of women; and for securing for herself a professional place as a writer and educator precisely when the status of women—especially married women—as professionals was increasingly being called into question.
Early on, Rowson's voice was recognized as feminist in tone and articulation, with this judgment often made with regard to materials other than the novel, Charlotte Temple. Evert and George Duyckinck chose to publish some of Rowson's...