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Prodigal Daughters

Prodigal Daughters: Susanna Rowson's Early American Women

Marion Rust
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    Prodigal Daughters
    Book Description:

    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 Daughtersdemonstrates 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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0084-0
    Subjects: Sociology, Language & Literature, History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. acknowledgments (pp. vii-x)
  3. Table of Contents (pp. xi-xii)
  4. List of Illustrations (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. introduction “WHAT THINKS YOUR FATHER OF THE PRESENT TIMES?” (pp. 1-47)

    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...

  6. chapter 1 WHAT’S WRONG WITH Charlotte Temple? (pp. 48-103)

    At first glance, it seems self-evident what Eliza Netterville meant when she scrawled “Virgins take a warning” across the last page of her 1808 copy ofCharlotte Temple.She had got the message: if a young lady doesn’t wish to end up like Charlotte or her malicious undoer Mademoiselle La Rue, she mustn’t have sexual intercourse before she gets married. A seduction novel has made its cardinal point, and a contemporary reader has been forewarned.¹

    The ease with which we reduce this inscription to its most obvious interpretation, however—and with it, the novel itself—should be cause for suspicion....

  7. chapter 2 REPRESENTING ROWSON (pp. 104-159)

    It is well established that bourgeois liberalism constructed itself out of the exclusion of women. Their absence from “the quasi-autonomous public of the bourgeois era” constituted that entity rather than merely followed as an effect. Such foundational exclusion, however, did not keep post-Revolutionary women—in particular, literary women—from playing important roles in “civil society,” that is, “any and all publics except those dedicated to the organized politics constituted in political parties and elections to local, state, and national office.” Indeed, in certain ways, female authors helped address fissures within the early national public sphere itself. Precisely because women of...

  8. chapter 3 FEEL WRITE (pp. 160-194)

    In the last chapter, we saw Rowson skillfully managing her authorial self-inscription to shape readers’ responses to her published writings as well as the author they created from those writings. Her efforts derived, not from mere vanity, but from the well-placed sense that her reputation as a professionally active woman would influence the tolerance accorded Anglo-American female ambition within the late-eighteenth-century public sphere. Rowson’s strategic self-referentiality, however, also betrays a sense of vulnerability, as in the following passage from the preface to herMentoria; or, The Young Lady’s Friend:

    Shall I tell the reader my design in publishing these volumes?...

  9. chapter 4 DAUGHTERS OF AMERICA (pp. 195-248)

    As previous chapters have demonstrated, a fractious social realm increasingly relied upon women to provide ideological coherence in post-Revolutionary America. At the same time, women exercised improvisatory skill to influence the socius they were said to merely typify. If female deference stood for the capacity of a republic to submit to the laws it made, female endeavor represented the response of those for whom this self-regulatory ideal made no place as citizens: in a sense, it disrupted the very capacity of deceptive norms to function upon those they oppressed.

    However much women showed up in arenas that did not know...

  10. chapter 5 NOVEL SCHOOLROOMS (pp. 249-300)

    In 1787, in a lecture at the Young Ladies’ Academy of Philadelphia, prominent citizen, physician, and esteemed University of Pennsylvania chemistry professor Benjamin Rush delineated the benefits of a pragmatic education for American women. Favoring bookkeeping and geography over French, vocal music over instrumental—and history, travels, poetry, and moral essays over the British novel—Rush exhorted his listeners to prepare to play a crucial role in determining a national character as distinct from Britain’s. Unlike the British, Rush argued, Americans’ sentiments ranged within modest bounds. Rather than form female education on a model that did not suit “our present...

  11. index (pp. 301-311)