Academic journal article Early American Literature

Imperial Pedagogy: Susanna Rowson's Columbus for Young Ladies

Academic journal article Early American Literature

Imperial Pedagogy: Susanna Rowson's Columbus for Young Ladies

Article excerpt

About a year before Captain James Cook's infamous death in the Hawaiian Islands in 1779, he sailed into the Pacific Northwest in the hopes of finding a passageway connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Cook believed his discovery would make trade routes between England and America more direct. Until the construction of the Panama Canal in the early twentieth century, merchants from England and New England had to sail around Cape Horn to reach the northwest--where they hoped to collect some of the wealth that Cook's published accounts suggested was available through the region's fur trade.

One such merchant was Robert Haswell, (1) the brother of Susanna Haswell Rowson--whose novel Charlotte Temple (1791) has gained her prominence in American literary histories in the past twenty years. During the 1790s, Haswell sailed with the crew of the Columbia Rediviva on fur trade expeditions that, according to Lucinda Joy Herrick, helped to establish Massachusetts's future economic base. Such ventures in the Pacific kept the New England economy going after the United States broke away from the British mercantile system (Herrick 17, 158).

During the tercentennial of Columbus's so-called discovery of America, in the year following the publication of Rowson's novel in London, first mate Haswell and the crew of the Columbia Rediviva came upon the mouth of the Columbia River, which they named for their ship. At the time traders and politicians, such as Thomas Jefferson, took interest in this discovery for its potential as a navigable trade route. Later the discovery of the Columbia River formed the basis for US claims to territory in the Pacific Northwest, which was caught up in both real and imagined geographies.

The United States was able to venture claims to this region into the 1840s (when Oregon was officially incorporated as national territory) because of a convention held in 1790 between the Spanish and British Empires in the Nootka Sound where Spain conceded to British demands that discovery be followed not by conquest but rather by sustained settlement when making territorial claims to non-Christian lands. (2) British-born Rowson furthered her family's attempts to capitalize on the Columbian past by endorsing this policy in her only historical novel, Reuben and Rachel; or, Tales of Old Times (1798), which she published one year after founding the Academy for Young Ladies in Boston. Using the novel as a supplement to her pedagogical practices, Rowson arranged chronology and geography--what she called the "two eyes of history"--to incorporate Anglo cultural practices into America's Columbian beginnings (Abridgment 285). By cultivating the feminine mind to envision North and South America as ripe for colonization by settlement, Rowson abetted the commercial ambitions of Anglo-American men like her brother Robert. Both discoverers of sorts, Robert Haswell in his own voyages and Susanna Rowson in her fictional geographies adopted Columbus to imagine the continent as exploitable territory for Anglo-Americans.

The struggles over American land among the empires of Spain, England, and the United States, in which Columbus prominently and variously figures, are key to understanding not only Rowson's novel but also her literary career. Although less renowned in the annals than Columbus, Rowson is just as slippery a historical figure. She came into prominence as a writer at the same time as the United States was emerging as a nation, and her importance to literary history has often been figured within a national context. (3) Yet her British nationality (she did not gain US citizenship until 1802), her subordinate position in society as a woman, and her participation in what she herself recognized as an underdeveloped national literary tradition all make her difficult to understand within a US frame--despite scholars' placement of Charlotte Temple at the beginnings of an American (meaning US) novelistic tradition. …

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