- Susanna Rowson: Sentimental Prophet of Early American Literature by Steven Epley
Susanna Rowson, American literature, American theater, Religion, Christianity, Hebrew Bible, Old Testament
Susanna Rowson has commanded remarkable longevity within early American scholarship. Known first as a first herself—early actor and playwright on the American stage, writer of the nation’s first best-selling novel, and pioneer of women’s education—Rowson’s lifetime of transatlantic experiences, varied occupations, and diverse written works have continued to captivate historians of the early republic as well as literary critics. Scholars initially portrayed Rowson as an exception: the rare woman active and acclaimed in the early American public sphere. More [End Page 704] recent work, particularly Marion Rust’s deftly composed Prodigal Daughters: Susanna Rowson’s Early American Women, instead has framed the author and educator as a telling embodiment of the era’s gendered contradictions, one of many highly literate white women navigating the narrow channel of female empowerment and submission set forth by the “paternalistic social and political entity” of the early republic.1 Steven Epley’s Susanna Rowson: Sentimental Prophet of Early American Literature calls attention to another aspect of this prolific figure and her work: her sustained engagement with religious ideas, most especially those of the Old Testament.
The intellectual possibilities signaled in Epley’s title—of casting Rowson as “sentimental prophet”—are tantalizing. How might she have drawn, in equal measure, on the eighteenth century’s transatlantic culture of sentiment, that era’s volatile sparks of prophecy and revivalism, and the longer tradition of prophetic biblical literature? What would such an interweaving of rhetorical modes have meant to her early American readers, themselves immersed in, or at least aware of, each of these traditions? And how might such a framework productively refresh scholarly thinking on the origins of American literature, the rise of the novel, or the gendered prescriptions of authorship?
Epley, though, elects a different focus than his provocative title suggests. A literary critic with an intricate knowledge of Judeo–Christian theology, he selects a portion of Rowson’s works through which to explore hesed, the concept of covenantal loyalty laid out in Hebrew scripture. Deploying an approach that “blends religious studies, biblical hermeneutics, feminism, and literary analysis,” Epley argues that one can read in Rowson a greater engagement with themes of loyalty, obedience, and steadfast love—values he ascribes primarily to the book of Deuteronomy—than with the spiritual conversion narratives often associated with Christianity (31). Thus, the moral failing at the core of Charlotte Temple, Rowson’s most famous work and the text that Epley analyzes most extensively, is not the unmarried title character’s sexual transgressions, but the disloyalty she commits toward her parents in choosing to leave school and run away with her seducer in the first place. At the novel’s conclusion, the restoration of the covenantal relationship [End Page 705] between Charlotte and her parents, however brief, signifies God’s steadfast love for his chosen people; even with Charlotte’s death, her parents extend the promise of future blessings to her newborn daughter Lucy, just as God renews covenant with Israel. In addition to Charlotte Temple, Epley brings his framework to bear on Rowson’s Biblical Dialogues, a scriptural paraphrase; Reuben and Rachel, a historical novel set in North America; Lucy Temple, the posthumously published sequel to her bestselling work; and, to a lesser extent, the provocative stage drama Slaves in Algiers.
Despite the absence of historical methodology in Epley’s approach, his work nonetheless makes claims about the past, and it is here, for a historically minded reader, that the project founders. At issue, to be clear, is not a literary critic seeking to contribute to historical scholarship, nor one choosing not to do so. The problem is in predicating a historical interpretation on a scholarly reading that includes neither robust engagement with current historiography nor substantial archival research. In the work under discussion, the most jarring of these historical assertions is two-fold: If Rowson, a “pioneer of Christian...