This semester, I am teaching, for the first time, Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple in my American literature survey course. Rowson’s novel fits in nicely with the other texts that I typically teach in the survey course because it provides opportunities to draw connections to texts and themes we look out over the course of the semester from women’s position during the early republic to the role of sentimental literature in America, specifically in relation to slave narratives. Along with these discussions, Charlotte Temple works within conversations surrounding how we define “American” literature and within conversations surrounding the history of scholarship and curriculum, especially in higher ed English course. I have written about these topics before, in regard to different texts, and they are topics that continue to peak my interest. Today, I want to briefly write about how Rowson’s novel fits into these conversations. In this post, I will not separate these discussions because I see them working together.
Based on its plot, can we really call Charlotte Temple an “American” novel? The entire first half of the novel takes place in England, Montraville and Belcour are soldiers who are going to America to fight against the Revolutionaries, American presents Charlotte with struggles, she dies in America, and her father takes her baby back to England. What does all of this say about America or American literature? In many ways, I go back to thinking about what Perry Miller said about Anne Bradstreet’s poetry. While she was the first “American,” in this case colonist, to publish a collection of poetry, the flora and fauna that populated her verse were British. This makes me think about scholars who pushed aside the study of sentimental literature published in America because the genre originated and had a large presence in England.
The editors of the 1917 edition of the Cambridge History of American Literature sought to, as Nancy Armstrong notes, “justify their literary preferences by mounting an argument against the anglophila they attribute to previous editors.” Sentimental literature, linked to England and the feminine, thus became pushed to the side in favor of more masculine texts by authors such as Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, and more. At work here, we get discussions of gender as well as nationhood. The desire to liberate American literature from England created what I would consider a work ethic type masculinity that we see from Franklin and John Hector St. John de Crevecoeur through today. Charlotte Temple, being a popular novel and sentimental novel, does not meet these characteristics. As well, it relates too much, through genre and plot, to England.
Pushing sentimental literature to the side of the scholarly conversation continued through the 1900s, most notably with F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance which situates the flourishing of American letters in the 1830s-1850s with Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville, Whitman, and Thoreau. This pantheon leaves out women, minorities, and countless other voices. Later, in the 1950s, Leslie Fiedler entered and sought to define the quintessential American novel. Based on aesthetic quality, Charlotte Temple, even as Jane Tompkins notes, would not qualify as the greatest American novel.
Scholars, for the most part, continued to shove sentimental literature to the side until Tomkins, Shirley Samuels, and others entered in the 1980s and following. Tompkins talks about his moment in her 1985 book Sensational Designs. Tompkins sees these texts, and rightfully so, as “powerful examples of the way a culture thinks about itself” and as texts where the “novelists have designs upon their audiences, in the sense of wanting make people think and act in a particular way.” We see this, of course, in sentimental novels ranging from Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Each of these novels tells us about the culture it they appeared within, and each novel seeks to convey a specific message to the reader.
The scholarly debate about whether or not to study sentimental literature such as Charlotte Temple intersects, as noted before, with discussions surrounding our definition of “American” literature. The early 1800s saw authors looking backwards to colonial America for inspiration on creating a distinct literature liberated from Europe. I have written about this before, so I will not go into details here. However, these discussions did not begin during that period. They occurred in the late 1700s as well, and I would posit that Charlotte Temple exists among these very conversations because it was a popular text and it has been argued that it was the first true “American” novel.
Cathy Davidson, in Revolution and the Word, addresses this very discussion. She brings up two interesting points when parsing out whether or not we can consider Rowson’s text as “American.” To begin with, she notes that Mathew Cary, the man who published the first edition of Charlotte Temple in America and an immigrant, describes Rowson, on the title page, as “of the New Theatre, Philadelphia.” This is important because Rowson was British, not American. She did claim, however, American as her adopted home after the Revolution. Cary positions Rowson as American by centering her identity as a citizen of Philadelphia. What this move shows is the malleability of identity and national boundaries.
When we ask whether or not Charlotte Temple is an “American” text, we are, at the core, asking, “What is American?” Essentially, what makes America America? What separates America and sets it apart from the rest of the world? As Davidson notes about the late 1800s, “The culture perceived its best fiction to be an apt measure of and metaphor for its status as a nation that was even then beginning to assume international political and economic power.” A distinct literature equals a distinct culture that can stand on its own. The literature represents the culture and serves as representation of its cultural clout and power, thus adding to its world standing.
Davidson continues by noting the cultural mythology that arose surrounding Charlotte Temple from the grave in New York to the fabricated ending of Charlotte trudging through a snowstorm at the end of the novel and dies among America’s underclass. The grave and the miscredited ending cause the novel to become ” kind of cultural legend with significance beyond that usually ascribed to mass cultural products.” Rowson’s novel, essentially, became ingrained within the American imagination, causing it to be woven into the cultural fabric of the burgeoning republic.
Taking into consideration all of this information, can we say that Charlotte Temple is an “American” novel? This is an ambiguous, and ultimately, unanswerable question. There are reasons why we could, and there are reasons why we can’t. For me, we do not really need to answer this question in the affirmative or the negative. For me, the question allows us to consider concepts of identity and nationalism that continue to this day. It creates a space for us to ask, “What defines _______________?” This is something de Crèvecœur attempted to do in Letters from an American Farmer. This is something artists did the the 1800s with a “distinctly American literature.” And, this is something we do daily in discussions about citizenship.
There is so much more that I want to say, but I do not have the space. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.