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Just Teach One

Rowson’s Sincerity (1803-04)

Fall 2015 – Just Teach One no. 7
Prepared by Duncan Faherty (Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center) and Ed White (Tulane University)

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Rowson’s Sincerity (1803-04)
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Teaching Reflections

 

Introduction

Susanna Haswell Rowson (1762-1824) was one of the early US·s most prolific and popular authors. Born in Britain, she spent several years of her childhood in Massachusetts, where her father was a customs collector. As the revolutionary conflicts accelerated in the mid-1770s, her father was placed under house arrest before the family was finally sent back to England in a prisoner exchange. In England, she became active in the theater, marrying actor William Rowson in 1786, and in 1793, the Rowsons journeyed to the United States with a theater company. By that time, Susanna Rowson had already published some poetry and six novels, including Charlotte. A Tale of Truth (1791). By 1794 Rowson had republished some of her British works in the United States, while also publishing new works, including several plays: Charlotte, republished in 1794 and again in 1797 as Charlotte Temple, becomes a best-selling phenomenon. After a brief period in Philadelphia, she relocated to Boston in 1796. Over the next few years, she published additional novels, plays, and poetry; opened a Young Ladies· Academy and published textbooks, and contributed to several magazines, including the Boston Weekly Magazine, though the extent of her involvement with the latter remains unclear. Certainly her largest contribution to this journal was the serialized novel Sincerity.

The Boston Weekly Magazine started to appear in 1802, published by Samuel Gilbert and Thomas Dean. While its heading indicated it would be ´Devoted to Morality, Literature, Biography, History, The Fine Arts, Agriculture, &c. &c.,’ the magazine was early in its history framed as a women·s alternative to the newspaper: ´We formed our plan at first, of publishing a weekly paper, on the hope of rendering an essential service to the Fair Sex, by offering them a work in which should be united at once, Amusement and Information, and thought it would be peculiarly acceptable to them, as the daily papers are merely vehicles of political controversy, and advertisements,’ wrote the editors. ´This being our avowed design, it behoves us to be particularly careful in what we present to their eye. Delicacy of sentiment, accuracy and elegance of language and purity of moral tendency, will ever be strong recommendations’ (Dec 11, 1802, page 2). Susanna Rowson’s novel began to appear in the June 4, 1803 issue, which opened with the twenty-eighth installment of an essay series titled ´The GOSSIP,’ a short reflection on hope and another on intemperance, a biographical sketch of a French bishop and another of a child prodigy, a number of short anecdotes under the heading ´AMUSING,’ some scientific anecdotes (including one about a chicken with the face of a human), and a short piece of the education of youth. Notices of marriages, deaths, and ordinations follow, along with some notes to readers who had made submissions. The paper’s fourth and final page has several poems, a lottery notice, and, under the heading ´THE NOVELIST,’ the first installment of ´SINCERITY: A NOVEL IN A SERIES OF ORIGINAL LETTERS.’ Thereafter, for about one year, installments of the novel appeared pretty much weekly³there was a skipped week in late October, 1803, and two missed weeks in early June, 1804. The fifty-three pieces generally correspond to the characters· letters, though the longer letters are spread across multiple magazine issues. The installments varied in length from just shy of 800 words to just over 1700 words, with an average of about 1300. In June of 1804, the serial was briefly interrupted for a notice that the novel, if it found sufficient subscribers, would be published as a bound book volume. Apparently interest was too low for this venture, and a book version would not appear for almost a decade: in early 1813, a book version appeared with the new title Sarah, or The Exemplary Wife, now with Susanna Rowson listed as the author. The magazine version of the novel was cleaned up a bit³the spelling of characters· names was standardized, punctuation was made more consistent, and the compressed columns of magazine text were broken up into paragraphs, particularly in the sections with dialogue. Otherwise, apart from the addition of a new preface (reproduced at the end of our text, below), the changes were relatively slight. Our reproduction aims to approximate the periodical version, and accordingly we have reproduced Sincerity with original headings, punctuation, paragraphing, and spelling, even when it is inconsistent (as is often the case with character names). We have only followed the text of the later novel version for obvious corrections of typographical errors, missing words, or grammatical mistakes that make the meaning unclear.

While Rowson is today best known for Charlotte Temple, the story of a very young woman’s seduction, Sincerity considers a very different scenario, that of an unhappy marriage and all the social and institutional disadvantages that follow: there is no US novel of the time that delves so deeply into the details of abuse and unhappiness. The novel also demonstrates a growing and unusual attention to physicality: from the early scene of Sarah·s nosebleed to the many later scenes of her fatigue and hunger, readers are attuned not only to the heroine·s emotional state but also her physical well-being. The absence of an American setting was not common for novels written and published in the US, but it was not unusual for Rowson’s writing. A few of her novels have American settings, most notably Reuben and Rachel (1798), an epic ten generation refashioning of the legacies of Columbus·s discovery· of the New World, but the four-volume Trials of the Human Heart (1795) was set in Europe. More striking to readers may have been the novel·s odd structure. It first seems to be a conventional epistolary novel of letters by and about Sarah, but that set structure essentially crumbles in the novel’s final third. One of the most challenging questions, finally, is that of the Sarah·s narrative reliability; while the original title Sincerity seems to insist that she means what she says, there are fascinating suggestions that Sarah simply cannot find a way to sincerely express her feelings about Darnley.

Suggestions for further reading

In the first book length biography of Susanna Rowson, Elias Nason judged Sincerity to be her ´most important contributionµ to the Boston Weekly Magazine, even as he categorizes the text as largely autobiographical: ´in the sufferings and unflinching fidelity of the heroine, Sarah Darnley, the author is said to have given with her pen, the portraiture of her own checkered and eventful lifeµ; see, Nason, A Memoir of Susanna Rowson (Munsell, 1870). Over a century later, Dorothy Weil labels Sincerity a ´didacticµ text aimed at delineating the ´problems of a loveless marriage of convenience;’ for Weil, Sincerity extends Rowson’s pedagogical work around the question of women·s education by underscoring that ´knowledge of the actual is more valuable than ascent into imaginary realmsµ; see, Weil, In Defense of Women: Susanna Rowson (1762-1824) (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976). Eve Kornfield considers how Sincerity ´provided lessons in domestic virtue rather than romantic or sentimental love,µ declaring that ´realism was the note striven for here; unlike in Rowson’s earlier novelsµ; see Kornfield, ´Women in Post-Revolutionary American Culture: Susanna Haswell Rowson’s American Career,µ Journal of American Culture 6 (1983). Cathy Davidson revitalized interest in Rowson and spurred the re-canonization of Charlotte Temple, but she only gestures towards Sincerity to suggest that its portrait of the high cost of marrying a fool ´had more than a passing personal relevanceµ; see, Davidson, Charlotte Temple (Oxford Univ. Press, 1986). Patricia L. Parker offers the first sustained examination of Sincerity, and in addition to cautioning against merely reading the text as autobiography she credits Rowson for her ´fully developedµ female characters and for how the text ´differs from most eighteenth-or nineteenth-century novelsµ by opening with a marriage instead of ending with one; see, Parker, Susanna Rowson (Twayne, 1986). Patricia Okker observes that Sincerity draws ´heavily on the didactic essay that served as a key feature of eighteenth-century periodicals,’ suggesting that such a ´mixing of genresµ stylistically emblematizes what she calls ´magazine novelsµ; see Okker, Social Stories: The Magazine Novel in Nineteenth-century America (University of Virginia Press, 2003). Marion Rust highlights how Sincerity ´contains cryptic allusions to physical abuse and emotional neglect,’ while also tracing how it ´lays out reasons a woman suffering these ills might choose to stay married, ranging from unwillingness to break a promise to the callous treatment that awaits her at the hands of the larger community should she departµ; see Rust, Prodigal Daughters: Susanna Rowson’s Early American Women (UNC Press, 2008). Joseph Fichtelberg categorizes Rowson’s style as an amalgamation of her various professional activities, observing that Sincerity demonstrates her ability to ´convert the performer’s peculiar self-effacement into cultural power by projecting the violating speech of the public sphere through the intimacy of the text and the letterµ; Fichtelberg, Risk Culture: Performance and Danger in Early America (University of Michigan Press, 2010). Jared Gardner innovatively argues that critics who taxonomize Sincerity as a novel, by dissociating it from its ´original periodical context,’ fail to understand that ´Rowson clearly does not intend it to beµ understood as such, a point he proves by evincing how Sincerity ´ends by dissolving itself back into the magazine, the larger periodical form with its own enveloping letters, anecdotes, and every day observations;’ it is a text, in other words, which begins after ´the Novel. ..ends’ and stands as the ´culmination of a career meditating on the limitations of the novelµ form; see Gardner, ´Susanna Rowson’s Periodical Career,’ Studies in American Fiction 38:1-2 (2011). Ed White examines the multiple frames and narrative voices assembled in Sincerity in order to diagnose the complexity of its narrative structure, ´what emerges is what a recent strain of psychoanalytic criticism has termed a parallax view: we hear the sentimental story as its subject chooses to present it, and we hear the sentimental story from a distance (as the story of an object), but then go still further to an objective· position (the editor) before plunging back into a subjective· exchange between the two objects of Sarah’s desire’; see, White, ´Rowson·s Arcs,’ Studies in American Fiction 38:1-2 (2011). Although she fails to acknowledge that Sincerity first appeared in 1803, Nicole Eustace interprets the 1813 book printing as a reflection of the bellicose tensions between England and the Unites States during the War of 1812; for Eustace, ´Rowson’s [1813] audience would have been primed to expect such disregard for freedom and for feeling from the British,µ and thus would have understood why ´the English advisors surrounding Sarah insisted that love had little to do with marriage and less to do with consentµ; see, Eustace, 1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

For more information on Susanna Rowson’s multifaceted writing career³including plays, musical scores, poetry, children’s literature, geography textbooks, didactic fiction, historical fiction, editorial work, dramatic dialogs, primers, and conduct guides ² we recommend the insightful and wide-ranging essays collected in a special double issue of Studies in American Fiction (38:1-2) entitled ´Beyond Charlotte Temple’ edited by Jenifer Desiderio and Desiree Henderson. Marion Rust’s monograph Prodigal Daughters is an important cultural biography of Rowson, and has opened up many new avenues for scholarly inquiry concerning Rowson’s lengthy and variegated career. Jared Gardner·s The Rise and Fall of Early American Magazine Culture (University of Illinois Press, 2012) is an indispensable resource for thinking about the importance of serialization and magazine publishing in the early Republic, and in chapter four he pays particular attention to Rowson’s important involvement in early U.S. magazine culture.

 

Teaching Reflections

The following are responses written by participants who have included this text in their teachings.

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