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  • Susanna Rowson's Periodical Career
  • Jared Gardner (bio)

Those who came of age as early Americanists in the 1980s are forever indebted to Cathy Davidson for rescuing from critical neglect Rowson's Charlotte Temple (1791, 1794). When she published her edition of the novel with Oxford in 1986, there had not been a new edition in over twenty years. Today, there are ten editions of the novel in print or development. The good news is that Rowson is now central to the literary history of the early republic. The bad news, of course, is that twenty-odd years later we are able to provide our students with only the thinnest glimpse of a career which, alongside that of Charles Brockden Brown, surpasses that of any other early American writer for its diversity, its productivity, and its importance to literary history.

The parallels between Rowson's and Brown's careers are worth considering: in addition to some obvious similarities in their work—both were interested in transatlantic themes, both saw their writings as serving a vital pedagogical function—they also shared many concerns about the novel form itself, an ambivalence that is lost to history when we focus exclusively on their novel writing (and in each case primarily on only one novel). Both wrote in a variety of forms: poems, essays, dialogues, geographies, histories, and political economy. Even within their novels themselves, there is a remarkable range of formal and generic approaches. Brown experimented famously with gothic and psychological fiction, but he was equally interested in working with epistolary forms and seduction plots. Rowson's generic and formal experimentation in the novel is even more striking: while she is associated most closely with Charlotte Temple, with its unified narrative voice and didactic address, in some ways Charlotte is an exception in an exceptional career. It is indeed hard to find two books from among her many productions that closely resemble each other formally, from the Byzantine wanderings [End Page 99] of The Inquisitor (1788, 1793), the anti-novelistic structure of Mentoria (1791, 1794), the sweeping historicism of Reuben and Rachel (1798), or the epistolary sufferings of Sarah (1813). Happily, Broadview has recently published Reuben and Rachel, but the fact that it has taken twenty years to bring a second Rowson text into print is not encouraging, especially at a time when we need to be working to recover a more accurate portrait of the literary culture of the early republic—one that does not revolve entirely around the story of the novel's inevitable triumph. Reuben and Rachel will certainly help illuminate the origins of the historical romance, found in the United States in Rowson's multiethnic epic a full generation before the melodramatic cliff-divings of Cooper's Mohicans (1826). But, precisely because of its relevance to important threads in the history of the novel, Reuben and Rachel will not do much to complicate our sense of Rowson's early career or of the literary culture of the period.

In fact, looking at Rowson's career as a whole, we could plausibly label only a handful of her many books as "novels." The majority are in other miscellaneous forms. Here, I refer not only to her school books (Youth's First Step in Geography [1818] or Spelling Dictionary [1807]) or anthologies (A Present for Young Ladies [1811]), but also to many of the books often considered among her novels, including The Inquisitor and Mentoria. The Inquisitor is narrated by a man who acquires a ring that allows him to invisibly visit his fellow citizens, visits he recounts in a series of "rambles, excursion, characters, and tales."1 Mentoria even more aggressively refuses any novelistic plotting. The book begins with a series of letters from a governess of a boarding school to her former charges and then moves into a series of short stories. Like The Inquisitor, Mentoria's structure bears at least as close a relation to the periodical form of the late eighteenth century as it does to the novel. Mentoria writes letters to her former charges upon various subjects—filial duty, proper society—and highlights each one with an anecdote, a story designed to give force to the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 99-114
Launched on MUSE
2011-11-23
Open Access
No
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