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  • Rowson's Arcs
  • Ed White (bio)

The canonization of Charlotte Temple in the last twenty-five years sometimes seems like the rapid coalescence of a new planet, changing the early American solar system. This sense of sudden emergence seems confirmed by the central importance given the novel in Cathy Davidson's influential Revolution and the Word (1986), or perhaps more so by the remarkable anthologization of Charlotte. The 1987 Harper American Literature included the "Author's Preface" and nothing more.1 By 1991, Emory Elliott's Prentice Hall anthology included five pages of Rowson, and Katharine M. Rogers included over twenty pages in the Meridian Anthology of Early American Women Writers. By 1998, the revamped Norton, under Nina Baym's editorship, included the full text. The most notable anthology of the moment was undoubtedly the Heath, which launched in 1990 with selections of the preface and seven chapters. The current excerpting was effectively settled with the third and fourth editions, which included portions of the preface, Chapter 1 ("The Boarding School"), 6 (the introduction of Mademoiselle LaRue), 7 (LaRue's manipulation of Charlotte),9 (developing Charlotte's relationship with Montraville), 11 (Charlotte's dark night of the sentimental soul), 12 (the untitled chapter in which the shrieking Charlotte faints into Montraville's carriage), and 14 ("Maternal Sorrows," in which the Temples learn of Charlotte's elopement). These extracts might be contrasted with those of the first edition of the Heath, which also included portions of the preface and Chapters 12 and 14, but which also included Chapters 2 ("Domestic Concerns," introducing young Mr. Temple's backstory), 15 ("Embarkation"), 17 ("A Wedding," describing the marriage of La Rue and Crayton, and the arrival in America), 23 (in which Belcour lies about Charlotte, prompting Montraville to abandon her), and 34 ("Retribution"). The earlier selections may have been chosen in part with an eye to the transatlantic thematic, but with chapters focused on Mr. [End Page 267] Temple's class drama, the male-male relationship of Belcour and Montraville, and the plot's vengeful resolution, one has a different sense of the novel's range than in the later selections, which essentially streamlined the seduction story. I note these changes not as a criticism, but to register a kind of contraction that took place in the critical reception of Rowson, whereby what initially loomed large came to seem like a bonsai tree, carefully pruned, watered, and framed, becoming almost ornamental.

One might accordingly go further, then, and see in Rowson's reception a larger tale of sentimentality, beginning perhaps with a reversal of causal explanation: maybe it wasn't that Charlotte opened the door to the consideration of sentimentality in the early US canon, but rather the other way around—that a focus on sentimentality closely associated with the critique of the ironic masculinist canon of nineteenth-century US literature was taking shape, and quickly processed Rowson's novel. The critical texts included in Marion Rust's recent Norton critical edition more or less document this process, usefully historicizing the formulations of sentimentality from the 1980s and 90s. Consider just two prominent examples, the first from Janet Todd's Sensibility: An Introduction (1986), the second from Joanne Dobson's "Reclaiming Sentimental Literature" (1997):

A sentimental work moralizes more than it analyses and emphasis is not on the subtleties of a particular emotional state but on the communication of common feeling from sufferer or watcher to reader or audience.

From a literary perspective, then, sentimentalism becomes a written imaginative mode defined by a cluster of conventional subjects, themes, characterization modes, narrative and lyric patterns, tropes, tonal qualities, and linguistic patterns focused around relational experience and the consequences of its rupture [...] An emphasis on accessible language, a clear prose style, and familiar lyric and narrative patterns defines an aesthetic whose primary quality of transparency is generated by a valorization of connection, an impulse toward communication with as wide an audience as possible.2

Such statements reflect the early recuperative moment when it was important to challenge the conventions of the established ironic canon: thus one defended the ostensibly more direct "communication" of simplified affect, "familiar" tropes and conventions, and accessibility, clarity, and "transparency." Casting sentimentality...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 267-283
Launched on MUSE
2011-11-23
Open Access
No
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