- Changing the Script:Rowson, Popular Drama, and Literary Masquerade
Perhaps Dorothy Weil put it best when she wrote that Susanna Rowson's most important creation was her authorial persona—the voice of a gentle and teacherly mother who had learned from personal experience that the passions of youth often lead to catastrophic mistakes, and was weary of seeing those errors repeated by the young.1 The sincerity of Rowson's voice in her fictional narratives is so striking and so apparently without artifice that even Rowson's most sophisticated modern readers occasionally echo the nineteenth-century belief that Rowson wrote from her own life.2 Had she been unhappy in love? Was her husband a drunk? Did she narrowly escape a Montraville herself? This essay works against the grain of this line of inquiry, arguing instead that Rowson's stage experience helps us to see that her greatest achievement was the simulacra of sincerity she achieved on the page, a performance augmented by her theatrical training. In this sense, even though her fiction ostensibly offers the advice that boys and girls should heed the wisdom of their elders, Rowson's larger career as an educator and a writer relied on her manipulations of such repressive conventions—such as making theatrical modes of expression respectable as educational tools—to enlarge women's professional opportunities and creative potential. As her promotion of oratorical training for schoolgirls illustrates, Rowson's alleged conservatism is complicated by her innovative pedagogy. If Marion Rust has recently demonstrated the limitations of placing Rowson within a narrow definition of republican motherhood—the selfless and disinterested mother—by acknowledging Rowson's commercial savvy, this essay seeks to examine the performative backgrounds of Rowson's work to reconsider Rowson's affiliation with didactic literature. Rowson was acting within fairly repressive confines of [End Page 57] early national patriarchal drama, but, like a good actress, she performed the script with significant innovations.
Many of the lively and subversive elements of Rowson's literary style come from the performance culture of the theater, where Rowson was accustomed to playing secondary roles in humorous, dialogic interplay with other characters, and her career evolved in a progressive, post-Revolutionary context in which women briefly achieved many freedoms that were later forgotten, if not actively suppressed, by the end of the 1830s.3 This aspect of Rowson's literary work is best seen alongside other early national female public speakers, such as Deborah Sampson Gannett and Fanny Newell, who also breached the general standards of women's decorum at the same time admitting they had little right for their transgression. This self-effacing device for entering the public sphere is evident in female poets from Anne Bradstreet to Phillis Wheatley, but Rowson and several of her peers used it to validate women's public speech during the 1790s and early 1800s. Even though the women of this period encountered strong prejudices against their novel conduct, they actually exploited the obstacles against them in creative ways to make a space for themselves. Rowson, in particular, became adept at using theatricalized modes of expression to enlarge the domain of the women's sphere.
The Farce and Popular Literature
Rowson appeared in over one hundred plays over several years but the majority of modern scholarly interest still focuses on her bestselling novel, Charlotte Temple.4 Part of the reason for this bias is due to the text's great popularity, but it is also partially due to mainstream beliefs about art and aesthetics in the twentieth century. Although pioneering cultural historians such as Constance Rourke have been making strong cases for the influence of the vernacular and popular arts since the 1930s, literature departments were generally hesitant to consider the aesthetic value of rigidly convention-bound or use-oriented literature (i.e., genre fiction, journalism, oratory, etc.). For example, it was not until the late 1980s that David Reynolds's encyclopedic work, Beneath the American Renaissance, argued that popular literature—such as melodrama—shaped the creative imaginations of writers as diverse as Poe, Emerson, and Dickinson.5 Reynolds's thesis was a revolution in seeing new aspects of belletristic authors generally thought to be above...