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  • Introduction
  • Jennifer Desiderio (bio) and Desirée Henderson (bio)

The essays in this special double issue of Studies in American Fiction seek to extend the body of critical knowledge on Susanna Rowson beyond her best-known novel, Charlotte Temple (1791, 1794). While Rowson has gained prominence in early American literary scholarship over the past three decades, she is examined almost exclusively with reference to this single work, and, as a result, has become known as primarily a sentimental novelist. This double issue takes a step in a new direction by critically and comprehensively exploring Rowson's large body of work, proving that Rowson was a more prolific and more diverse author than is commonly known. The author of novels, plays, poems, songs, conduct literature, books of pedagogy, and periodical columns, Rowson was actively engaged with multiple, sometimes overlapping generic traditions. An actress, musical performer, periodical editor, and preceptress to a young ladies school, Rowson was not limited to the printed page but pursued creativity and self-expression in numerous venues other than authorship. In "Beyond Charlotte Temple," we analyze Rowson's long and rich career, her voluminous oeuvre, and her fascinating biography in order to broaden our knowledge and understanding of the author, her place in American literature, and the early American literary marketplace.

Each of the essays in this volume addresses Rowson's lesser-known literary works or artistic endeavors and, in privileging her diverse career, we come to see Rowson in a different way than has been previously suggested. Historically, Rowson's career has been represented in a linear fashion, as she moved from an actress on the stage in London to a moral pedagogue in Boston. The essays in "Beyond Charlotte Temple" instead suggest that Rowson was both constantly reinventing herself and her public personae and revisiting previous generic modes and themes. At any one time, Rowson was engaged in multiple [End Page xv] artistic endeavors and forms—a biographical fact that, once acknowledged, enables us to perceive the ways that each of her individual works is characterized by a diversity of style. For example, her novels incorporate theatrical techniques, her song lyrics are published as poems, her pedagogical texts include performative dialogues, her plays contain poems and songs, and so forth. Hardly just a sentimental novelist, Rowson is a dynamic early American figure whose work and life defies simple categorization and representation.

In this introduction, we discuss the implications of studying Charlotte Temple as Rowson's only text and argue for the significance of a broader approach to her career. Through a study of Rowson's diverse oeuvre, we place Charlotte Temple in a more accurate literary context and develop a more precise depiction of Rowson as author and artist than has been previously achieved. In making these critical moves, we also position Rowson in her rightful transatlantic context, explore the lessons that her body of writing teaches us about women's place in the new republic, and add to the field's understanding of early American authorship and print culture.

The Legacy of Charlotte Temple

Charlotte Temple is one of the most definitive success stories of recovery scholarship. Like other works of American women's writing, Charlotte Temple was rescued from critical distain and historical obscurity by the diligent efforts of feminist literary critics. While many other recovered works remain known to only a select audience of scholars, Charlotte Temple has secured a place within the canon of early American literature. The novel has been included in both the Norton and Heath anthologies and there are at least three editions currently in print, including a Norton Critical Edition. Over two hundred years after its initial publication, this popular tale of seduction has become a familiar object of inquiry in academic journals and books, at national conferences, and in college and high school classrooms.

Charlotte Temple's status has to do with its uniqueness as an eighteenth-century text, as well as its ability to speak to twentieth- and twenty-first century scholarly interests. The novel was the best-selling book of the eighteenth century and remained in print well into the nineteenth century, long after most novels of its time had disappeared. This unprecedented popularity...


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pp. xv-xxviii
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