editor, editing practices, female editorship, epistolary novels, Susanna Rowson, periodicals, gossip, Boston Weekly Magazine, women and print culture, gender
The final act of Susanna Rowson’s 1803 epistolary novel Sincerity introduces a new character—an editor who steers the narrative to completion when its main interlocutors begin to die, fall ill, or otherwise fade away. Though cloaked in anonymity, this editor pieces together the last remnants of their correspondence, glossing over several years’ worth of events he or she deems too irrelevant to include: “as these letters contained no material incidents, it was thought better to suppress them, giving only an abstract of any occurrence of consequence for the reader to know, in order to the better understanding the subsequent letters.”1 Guiding the novel to its close, this editor condenses material and provides a (seemingly) impartial summary of events.
On the surface, this “editor conceit” from a prominent early American novelist seems unremarkable. Epistolary novels are often presented as collections of found documents gathered and prepared by an unknown editorial hand. For more than half a century, novelists had masqueraded as editors of their own works to add to their authenticity, most notably Samuel Richardson, who identified himself as the “editor of Pamela” while taking a similar role in Clarissa.2 Early American novels, however, which embraced the epistolary mode when it had fallen out of fashion in Europe, usually did not employ a transparent editorial figure as Richardson had. Along with the editor’s last-minute appearance, this feature makes Rowson’s “editor” uncharacteristic of the Anglo-American tradition. Rowson never claimed to be the editor of these found documents; rather, she maintained her separate authorial identity distinct from an editorial one. In fact, when she reissued the novel in 1813 as Sarah; or, The Exemplary Wife, she shored up her role [End Page 658] as author by including a preface acknowledging the novel’s autobiographical parallels, all the while keeping the editor-as-character a late-arriving inter-loper.
This small departure from epistolary convention, though seemingly insignificant, provides a valuable starting point for thinking about the practice of editing in the early republic, especially as it related to gender politics and the overwhelming editorial urge to shape the ways in which readers processed information. By focusing on Rowson’s periodical career, I deliberately limit the field of editing practices that came to fruition both during and before this period, including newspaper editing, book editing, anthology compiling, textual correcting, and other responsibilities. These disparate types of editing differed according to their purpose and scope, as newspaper editors endeavored to shape political events, anthology editors hoped to shape readers’ tastes, and textual editors took on a wide array of tasks.3 Literary study has as many types of editors as it does material texts, and this brief essay cannot consolidate them in a meaningful and self-contained history. Instead, I focus on this specific moment in one narrow case study—Rowson’s interpolated, anonymous editor—as a window into Rowson’s own editorial politics and, more significantly, into her understanding of editorial power and its limits. Through its gendered critique, the novel reveals Rowson’s misgivings about the scope public expression afforded to female editors. By juxtaposing its anonymous editorial presence with the stringent expectations that confine its female characters, Sincerity contemplates how a woman might venture into the world of public letters—or if she should even try.
Rowson published Sincerity in the Boston Weekly Magazine, a publication she helped edit, although the exact nature of her editorial work is unclear. [End Page 659] We know that she was involved with the magazine, as she spells out her commitment in the preface to Sarah, stating that Sincerity was “written in snatches of time, and under the pressure of much care and business to my profession,” and her earliest biographer credited her with contributing to its long-standing column, The Gossip.4 We can imagine, then, that she had a hand in the kind of practices employed by most periodical editors—selecting contributors, arranging and correcting the magazine’s contents, authoring some of the pieces, and culling articles from British publications. Unlike partisan...