Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Windows and Writing: Susanna Rowson and the Scene of Female Authorship

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Windows and Writing: Susanna Rowson and the Scene of Female Authorship

Article excerpt

Few women writers are more central to the history of the early American novel than Susanna Rowson. Her oft-cited status as the author of the first American bestseller has cemented her importance to the rise of the novel, the development of popular literature, and the emergence of authorship as a viable career for women. In an early effort to recover Rowson's significance, Jane Tompkins declared her the "Father of the American Novel" (29). Recent scholarship employs more moderate terms, while still emphasizing Rowson's achievements as an author whose writing across several genres reached a wider audience than most other authors of the period, male or female, could aspire to reach. A unique textual history has also formed around Rowson's best-selling novel, Charlotte Temple, and its numerous editions across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including accounts of Rowson's efforts to market and promote her work, the ways in which readers responded to the text through marginalia and other fan-culture activities, and how the format and content of the different editions and the novel's sequel reflect changes in publishing practices and popular taste. (1) Rowson and her most famous novel have today achieved canonical status and are widely read, taught, and written about by a generation of critics attuned to the need for a recuperative account of American women's writing.

Scholarly accounts of Rowson's place in early American literary history reflect largermovements in the field as women and their textual productions have gained increased legitimacy as objects of study. Rowson was initially recovered as an exceptional figure, staked out against a relatively shallow pool of fellow women writers as an unusual example of professional success. (2) Her status was closely tied to that of the novel itself as an exemplary American genre thanks to Cathy Davidson's groundbreaking Revolution and the Word and the first wave of scholarship that followed upon the modern critical edition of Charlotte Temple, edited by Davidson and published in 1987. Subsequent scholarship has moved away from these early approaches in notable ways. Ongoing recovery efforts continue to expand the literary canon and particularly to demonstrate that women found points of entry into print culture through a variety of genres other than the novel, including essays, periodicals, and pedagogical textbooks, claims persuasively outlined in works like Sari Edelstein's Between the Novel and the News, Caroline Wigginton's In the Neighborhood, and Angela Vietto's Women and Authorship in Revolutionary America. Additionally, recent scholarship emphasizes the importance of women's manuscript compositions, documenting how unpublished commonplace books, poetry, and letters allowed women to exercise a considerable degree of authorial control over their writing and its circulation. Challenging the primacy of white women within the history of early American literature, many scholars have shown that African American and Native American women made key contributions to the development of literary culture and a wide range of literacies that extend beyond the conventional concept of authorial composition. Such critical approaches have generated remarkable dividends not just for the study of early women writers generally, but for the reconsideration of Rowson herself--no longer an exceptional figure but one embedded within a heterogeneous community of women who followed many paths in their pursuit of self-expression. The most important of these critical reconsiderations is Marion Rust's Prodigal Daughters, which opens up major new lines of investigation into the gendered nature of Rowson's politics and authorial identity. Notably, by addressing Rowson's extensive oeuvre and her many creative pursuits, Rust proves that only by expanding beyond a singular focus on Charlotte Temple will Rowson's multifaceted personas, opinions, and stylistic endeavors come into view.

However, these scholarly accounts of the historical conditions and varied forms of early women's writing have not been accompanied by an examination of the representation of women writers within fictional texts. …

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