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  • The Pursuit of a "Just Proportion of Public Approbation":Rowson in Her Musical Context
  • Peter Leavenworth (bio)

Susanna Rowson's connection with music theater, song publishing, and lyric writing has been an overlooked but significant component of her career. While her fiction has received deserved attention, her participation in music production and its publicity disclose several key aspects of her career, character, and family life. This essay suggests that her pursuits in lyric writing, along with composing poetry and plays, provided outlets for self-interest that stand in opposition to Rowson's public preoccupation with young women's moral composure, both in her novel writing and as the head of the Young Ladies Academy in Boston. These little known activities included establishing patriotic credentials as a recently naturalized American citizen, utilizing performance-related outlets in popular entertainment to counterbalance her appeals to genteel culture, and managing her relationship with an expanding readership through newspaper notices and advertisements.

Rowson engaged in writing and publishing words for many songs over her long career, some of which gained considerable popularity in the growing American market for indigenously printed sheet music. She was especially active in lyric writing in the 1790s, also her most prolific period for publishing fiction. This analysis reveals that her relationship with the musicians who composed, engraved, and printed her songs encouraged an astute use of public prints for music and self-promotion in newspapers, in an alternative market to book publishing. Her use of advertising and performance to craft an engaging and worldly, yet chaste and patriotic, popular persona kept her in the public eye. This attention brought her financial stability but also sharp criticism from commentators like William Cobbett, writing as Peter Porcupine in A Kick for a Bite, and other magazine and newspaper reviewers. Since female celebrity of this stature was unfamiliar in America, [End Page 33] these variegated denunciations provide important insights into the public perception of Rowson's cultivated image.

By delineating the theater music environment in which Rowson moved, particularly the career details of contemporaneous musicians and female singers, one can obtain a better appreciation of her contributions to public culture and her broader self-conception as a writer. Some have argued that Rowson's move from actor, lyricist, playwright, and novelist to the more reliable and influential position as educator to the daughters of New England's elite appears connected with a corresponding shift in her social self-assurance and overt political conservatism.1 However, social advancement through self-invention was part of a continuum of transformation in Rowson's early adulthood, from governess to actress to American luminary, uniquely infused with her facility with authorship and performance. Her ability to attract pupils from New England's merchant and professional classes was enhanced not only by her fame as a writer, but by connections and publicity attained through the theater and Boston's leading musicians. As the possibilities for upward class mobility became a hallmark of the early national economy, the part that Rowson played as a celebrity from within an emigrant community of publishers, actors, and musicians helped to construct an American ideal of self-fashioning that, her prominence appeared to suggest, could include women. In addition, contextualizing Rowson with her fellow musical and dramatic expatriates illuminates the pragmatism behind ambivalent and sometimes misunderstood aspects of her transferred national loyalties. This ambiguity was conspicuous for many of her contemporaries, notably the acerbic critic William Cobbett, and could even place European performers in physical danger in the turbulent entertainments at urban theaters.2

Music in Print

From her arrival in Philadelphia, Rowson took full advantage of the new publishing opportunities afforded by her connections with theater musicians and orchestra leaders. Her song lyrics were published over a twenty-five year span by Benjamin Carr, James Hewitt, Peter Von Hagen Sr. and Jr., Rayner Taylor, John Bray, Gottlieb Graupner, and Alexander Reinagle, all leading pit band members recently arrived from Europe. Possessed of music notation punches, inexpensive copper plate printers, and the skills to engrave the folded folio two-page sheets, these musicians made publishing an increasingly important component of their income in the early nineteenth century.3 Prints of music theater "hits" were...


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