American Literature Susanna Haswell Rowson
Steven Epley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0100


Susanna Haswell Rowson (b. February 1762–d. 2 March 1824) was America’s first best-selling novelist and a groundbreaking feminist playwright, songwriter, poet, and educator. Her sentimental seduction novel Charlotte Temple has gone through more than two hundred editions since its first publication in England in 1791 and America in 1794. The popularity of this novel about a teenage English girl seduced by a soldier in England and abandoned to die in America inspired generations of readers to visit the supposed grave of the protagonist in New York’s Trinity Churchyard, where they wept and paid respects. Yet, the novel and Rowson received little scholarly attention until their rediscovery by feminist critics in the 1980s. Rowson was born in Portsmouth, England, to Susanna Musgrave Haswell and British Royal Navy officer William Haswell. She joined her widowed father at his post in Massachusetts in 1763, but colonial suspicions led to the family’s three-year house arrest until a prisoner exchange in 1778 returned them to England, where at some point she began acting and writing song lyrics and fiction. In 1786, she published her first novel by subscription and married William Rowson, a minor actor and musician. In the next ten years, Rowson published five more novels, one book of poetry, and an ode about contemporary English drama while continuing to act. In 1793, the Rowsons were recruited to join a new theater company in Philadelphia, so she returned to America. In 1794, her politically charged play Slaves in Algiers ignited a pamphlet war to which Rowson contributed in the preface to her first novel written in America. In 1796, the Rowsons moved to Boston, where Susanna continued to act and write lyrics for the theater. She republished four novels first published in England, including Charlotte Temple, which became much more popular in America. Rowson retired from the stage in 1798 after publishing her only historical novel and opened an academy for young women that she oversaw until her retirement in 1824. During that time, she published a second book of poetry, a novel that appeared serially in the Boston Weekly Magazine and was later published in book form, and five pedagogical books on spelling, history, geography, women’s biography, and the Bible. After her death in 1824, a sequel to Charlotte Temple was found among her effects and was posthumously published in 1828.

General Overviews

Three book-length studies of Rowson—Weil 1976, Rust 2008, and Epley 2016—have appeared in the last half-century, as well as more than a hundred articles, book chapters, and excerpts of her works in literature anthologies. However, before 1986 critical interest in Rowson was rare and sporadic, when not derisive or condescending. The most notorious example is Fiedler 1960, deriding Charlotte Temple as “subliterary” myth, “scarcely written at all.” The author of Rourke 1942, a female critic, sounded one of the few unqualified notes of approval when she praised Rowson for daring to sympathize so strongly with Charlotte, calling Rowson “a reformer” whose novels “always had a purpose [and] an underlying bias. They were feminist.” Rowson’s reputation was not aided by the cheap editions with poorly conceived alterations to her most famous work made by publishers who were eager to cash in on the work’s huge popularity. In fact, Funk and Wagnalls published the first scholarly edition of it, Rowson 1905, to correct more than twelve hundred errors that had been brazenly introduced into these earlier editions. The novel remained largely unnoticed until Brandt 1975 (see under Biographies and Biographical Essays) and Weil 1976, a wide-ranging analysis that boldly claimed that Rowson might deserve recognition as “America’s first professional writer of fiction.” Interest in Rowson grew exponentially in 1986 when Davidson 2004 drew on recent work in social history, post-structuralist theory, and feminist studies to show the early American novel’s relevance to its own time and ours. Flück 2000 castigates revisionist critics like Davidson and others for projecting political meanings into early American novels, including Rowson’s. Tompkins 1993 makes a strong case “by any normal, reasonable standard” for Rowson, not Charles Brockden Brown, to be considered the “father of the American novel” or “first American man of letters.” Epley 2016 argues that Rowson modeled her writings on Old Testament principles of steadfast loyalty. Rust 2008, the most often-cited single-author study of Rowson, explores the author’s aptitude for “compromise” and “adaptation” that helps explain the alternating conservative and subversive tendencies that have baffled readers. Rust explores the ways in which “agency and submission, autonomy and subjection, choice and mechanism cohere into a single, if unstable, whole.” While Charlotte Temple has always received the lion’s share of attention, Desiderioand Henderson 2011, is a collection of twelve full-length essays on other works by Rowson.

  • Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. Exp. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Effectively ended any possibility that sentimental novels could legitimately be viewed as “frothy fictions” by arguing that they were mostly written by women based on their experiences and intended to benefit younger female readers set to enter a world of feme covert legal limitations, the possibility of spousal abandonment, and the probability of repeated pregnancies, any of which could lead to an early death. Originally published in 1986.

  • Desiderio, Jennifer, and Desirée Henderson, eds. Special Issue: Beyond Charlotte Temple. In Studies in American Fiction 38.1–2 (Spring and Fall 2011).

    Contains twelve full-length essays, a foreword, and an afterword on Rowson’s life and career apart from her most famous novel. The essays, cited and annotated here under various headings, deal with her musical, theatrical, poetic, periodical, and pedagogical careers as well as issues like gender, slavery, plagiarism, and suffering.

  • Epley, Steven. Susanna Rowson: Sentimental Prophet of Early American Literature. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv47w95g

    Likens Rowson to Old Testament figures, primarily prophets (Moses, Huldah, Hosea, Ruth, and Isaiah) through their shared emphases on teaching, judgment, forgiveness, inclusiveness, and the redemption offered by suffering, respectively, in her writings and her responses to social issues.

  • Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Anchor Books, 1960.

    Describes Charlotte’s seducer, Montraville, as “the masturbatory fantasy figure of bourgeois ladies” (p. 69) and derides the novel as an “unwitting travesty” of Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa, in which Rowson “succeeded in projecting once and for all the American woman’s image of herself as the long-suffering martyr of love—inevitable victim of male brutality and lust” (p. 97).

  • Flück, Winfried. “From Aesthetics to Political Criticism: Theories of the Early American Novel.” In Early America Re-Explored: New Perspectives in Colonial, Early American, and Antebellum American Culture. Edited by Klaus H. Schmidt and Fritz Fleischman, 225–268. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

    The most thorough survey of 20th-century criticism of early American fiction. Claims that critics beginning with Davidson judge novels as “models of right or wrong political behavior” based on a faulty “assumption of a systemic link between past and present” that allows any narrative device to represent “a hidden political subtext” (p. 253) of the critic’s choosing.

  • Rourke, Constance. The Roots of American Culture and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1942.

    One of a handful of positive appraisals of Rowson’s career in the mid-twentieth century, praising her feminism and flair. Also discusses the school that Rowson started and operated, her pedagogical methods, and her lyrics.

  • Rowson, Susanna. Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth. By Susanna Rowson. Reprinted from the Rare First American Edition (1794), over Twelve Hundred Errors in Later Editions Being Corrected, and the Preface Restored, With an Historical and Biographical Introduction, Bibliography, Etc. Edited by Francis W. Halsey. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1905.

    Halsey’s introduction to this first scholarly edition of Charlotte Temple, based on the first American edition of 1794, describes errors and intentional alterations found in subsequent editions as “sensational,” “stupid,” and “reprehensible” (p. xxx). Book also notable for its many illustrations, including examples of artwork found in those faulty editions.

  • Rust, Marion. Prodigal Daughters: Susanna Rowson’s Early American Women. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

    The most influential and often-cited critical work on Rowson. Argues persuasively that Rowson deployed sentimentalism in sophisticated ways to advise young female readers yearning for the freedom that a putatively egalitarian society offered them, yet needing not to run afoul of patriarchal structures of familial and social control.

  • Tompkins, Jane. “Susanna Rowson, Father of the American Novel.” In The (Other) American Tradition: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers. Edited by Joyce W. Warren, 29–38. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

    Favorably contrasts Rowson with Charles Brockden Brown, then considered America’s first important novelist, and explores the ways in which women are systematically excluded from the canon. Reprinted in Rust 2011 (under Primary Texts).

  • Weil, Dorothy. In Defense of Women: Susanna Rowson (1762–1824). University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.

    Valuable study, far ahead of its time, with chapters on themes such as religion, which Weil considers uppermost for Rowson, as well as women’s need for freedom and independence. Acknowledges Rowson’s sentimentalism but effectively dispels the notion that Rowson shares the sentimental tradition’s optimistic view of human nature and its belief in the superior moral purity of women.

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