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Prodigal Daughters

Susanna Rowson’s Early American Women

Marion Rust

Cloth: 978-0-8078-3140-3 ($69.95)
Paper: 978-0-8078-5892-9 ($28.95)

Copyright 2008
University of North Carolina Press

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 Daughters demonstrates 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.

About the Author

Marion Rust is assistant professor of English at the University of Kentucky.


A major accomplishment. . . . Rust charts the tension between discipline and pleasure, submission and autonomy, republican virtue and its gendered performances, that marked both Rowson and her characters, making them central to the culture of sentiment in the United States. By moving Rowson center stage, Prodigal Daughters rectifies a long-standing omission in American cultural history.

--Laura Rigal, University of Iowa

More than a revisionist account of the best-selling novelist in the United States prior to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rust’s powerful rendering of Susanna Rowson’s life and career is an invitation to rethink our fundamental assumptions about the relations among gender, agency, literary production, and public action.

--Bruce Burgett, University of Washington

In this important contribution to gender and literary studies in the early U.S. Republic, Marion Rust opens a window onto the extended literary career of Susanna Rowson, demonstrating that there is far more to Rowson’s work than Charlotte Temple and far more to the story of femininity in the early national period than a choice between seduction and death or republican motherhood.

--Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Northeastern University

Rust's biographical material is persuasive. . . . [She] creates a convincing link between the women readers that Rowson . . . reached and the women activists of 1848.

--Women's Review of Books

Details what is unusual, underappreciated, and historically relevant about Rowson. . . . Elegantly and candidly written and well grounded in literary scholarship, this book usefully integrates recent historical work on early republican sexuality. . . . [A] powerful book.

--Literature & History

Appealing to readers interested not only in Rowson but in the larger culture of the new republic. . . . Seamlessly combines Rowson's biography with her large oeuvre and careful literary criticism with the history of the young nation to create a fascinating study on one of the new republic's most successful authors.

--Early American Literature

Rust's narrative style is engaging. . . . Highly Recommended.


A radically new and exciting picture of Rowson. . . . Each of Rust's readings taken by itself is fascinating. Together, they constitute a vivid, original analysis of gender politics, literary production, and the public sphere in the new republic. . . . A pleasure to read.

--Resources for American Literary Study

Far more than an important addition to scholarship on Rowson . . . Rust provides an important reevaluation of women's literary and public strategies during this pivotal period in American literary history.

--Journal of American History

Marks the starting point for a new era of Rowson scholarship.

--William and Mary Quarterly

Draw[ing] on some excellent research . . . [Prodigal Daughters] is a nice example of a successful interdisciplinary work and provides us with crucial insights into the life and writings of one of the most important female authors of the new nation.

--Journal of the Early Republic

A carefully researched, nuanced reinterpretation. . . . Challenges some widely held ideas about early Republican women's relationship to authorship and public life. . . . Essential reading for those interested in antebellum literature, the history of sentimentality, and women's history.

--American Studies

Splendidly researched. . . . Rust is especially good at parsing major critical debates in early American studies and engaging in critical dialogue. . . . Firmly persuades readers that Rowson is both extraordinary and metonymic.


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