Prodigal Daughters: Susanna Rowson's Early American Women

Prodigal Daughters: Susanna Rowson's Early American Women

Prodigal Daughters: Susanna Rowson's Early American Women

Prodigal Daughters: Susanna Rowson's Early American Women


Susanna Rowson--novelist, actress, playwright, poet, school founder, and early national celebrity--bears little resemblance to the title character in her most famous creation, Charlotte Temple. Yet this best-selling novel has long been perceived as the prime exemplar of female passivity and subjugation in the early Republic. Marion Rust disrupts this view by placing the novel in the context of Rowson's life and other writings. Rust shows how an early form of American sentimentalism mediated the constantly shifting balance between autonomy and submission that is key to understanding both Rowson's work and the lives of early American women.

Rust proposes that Rowson found a wide female audience in the young Republic because she articulated meaningful female agency without sacrificing accountability to authority, a particularly useful skill in a nation that idealized womanhood while denying women the most basic rights. Rowson, herself an expert at personal reinvention, invited her readers, theatrical audiences, and students to value carefully crafted female self-presentation as an instrument for the attainment of greater influence. Prodigal Daughters demonstrates some of the ways in which literature and lived experience overlapped, especially for women trying to find room for themselves in an increasingly hostile public arena.


On January 8, 1808, seventeen days after Thomas Jefferson signed the Embargo Act of 1807, author and pedagogue Susanna Haswell Rowson wrote letters to two former students, Mary Montgomery and Louisa Bliss, and sent them care of Mary’s younger sister, Myra. A student at Rowson’s Young Ladies’ Academy, Myra was just returning to Haverhill, New Hampshire, from Boston, where she had stayed with the Rowson family for a couple of days. As the daughters of General John Montgomery, Mary and Myra were among the more prominent members of a student body drawn largely from Boston’s elite. In fact, it was to Mary that Rowson’s school owed the privilege of being the first in the area to boast a piano. Louisa brought with her no such bequest—but, as we will see, she held a greater claim on her mentor’s attention.

Rowson’s letter to Mary epitomizes the commonly acknowledged function of the early American female academy: preparing a young woman to assume the mantle of genteel wife- and motherhood. Writing “my dear M.” on the occasion of her upcoming marriage, as Mary prepares to “discard” one name and “adopt” another, Rowson gently cedes the role of instructor: “I could write volumes on this subject, but I should say nothing new; nor anything but what your own good sense will naturally suggest.” Her abdication supports the contemporary view that marriage was the fitting culmination of one’s scholastic labors. Indeed, since courses of study in early national female academies varied widely in both subject matter and length and since formal matriculation was uncommon, one might say that Mary truly graduated when she married. Rowson’s gracious deferral (“Allow me then

1. The general gave the piano to his daughter in 1799, while she was a student at Rowson’s Young Ladies’ Academy, and it returned to Haverhill when she did. See “An Historical Piano,” Historical Magazine, II (1867), in Papers of Susanna Rowson, 1770–1879 (hereafter cited as Rowson Papers), MSS 7379, box 2, folder 95, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va.; Susanna Rowson to Mary Montgomery, Jan. 8, 1808, ibid., MSS 7379-a, box 1, folder 39; Rowson to Louisa Bliss, ibid., MSS 7379-c, box 1, folder 36.

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