The (Other) American Traditions: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers

By Joyce W. Warren | Go to book overview

JANE TOMPKINS


Susanna Rowson, Father of the American Novel

THE POINT I HAVE TO MAKE in this essay is so simple and obvious that I have trouble believing it myself. It is that by any normal, reasonable standard, the title "father of the American novel" or, alternately, "first American man of letters," should have gone not to Charles Brockden Brown, who has always held it ( Brown is referred to variously as "father of the American novel,"1 "the first of our novelists,"2 "our first professional author."3 "the first of our writers to make a profession of literature,"4 "the first professional man of letters in America,"5 "the first American to make authorship his sole career,"6 "the first American writer to devote himself wholly to a literary career"7) but to a person named Susanna Rowson, who wrote at the same time Brown did, whose literary production far exceeded his, whose influence on American culture was incomparably greater, and whose name was misspelled in the MLA program the year I gave the paper from which this essay derives.

If you have never heard of Rowson, do not feel bad. She is not someone you were supposed to have studied for your Ph.D. orals; nor have people who write for Critical Inquiry and Representations been dropping her name lately. She wasn't the father of the American novel; I am going to talk about why.

One reason is that the terminology of literary history is made for describing men, not women. One has never heard the phrase "mother of the American novel" (or the British novel or the Russian novel). Novels do not have mothers; nor do literary traditions of any sort, at least none that I know of. There is no mother of the Renaissance pastoral, or of the German theater, or of the Portuguese epic. We speak of masterpieces and

-29-

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