Monday, February 24, 2014

Charlotte Temple: America's First Bestseller

The following is a part of a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature.

It is widely believed that early American literature was dominated by men, but the truth is more complicated.  The first bestselling novel in America was written by a woman.  It was called Charlotte Temple (or, Charlotte: a Tale of Truth), by Susanna Rowson, and was published in 1791.  Rowson was the daughter of a British naval officer stationed in America.  During the Revolutionary War, she moved to England, and then back to the States in 1793, where she lived out her life as a successful author, actor, and teacher.  

Susanna Rowson, America's first best-selling novelist.

Charlotte Temple belongs to a strange genre of fiction, popular in 18th century America, known as "seduction fiction."  It tells the story of a young British schoolgirl named Charlotte Temple, who is seduced by a dashing officer named John Montraville.  She leaves her school and family for this man and travels with him to America, where Montraville quickly leaves her and marries another.  Charlotte is left to die in poverty in New York, but not before giving birth to a child, who is taken in by her grieving parents.  It's a sad story.

Unlike most novels today, Charlotte Temple is overt about its "moral lesson."  Rowson prefaces the novel by telling the reader exactly why she wrote it: "If the following tale should save one hapless fair one from the errors which ruined poor Charlotte, or rescue from impending misery the heart of one anxious parent, I shall feel a much higher gratification in reflecting on this trifling performance, than could possibly result form the applause which might attend the most elegant piece of literature whose tendency might deprave the heart or mislead the understanding."

Thus, Susannah Rowson's purpose in writing Charlotte Temple is a conservative one.  She wants to provide a cautionary tale for young girls with the following lessons: "Obey your parents, obey your teachers, don't go out with strange men or you will surely die like Charlotte."  It's a strange message for a contemporary reader like me.  I find the novel's overt moralism makes it feel like a cheesy "after school special" or like one of those low budget "made for Christians" movies like Fireproof, starring Kirk Cameron.

The novel is valuable in that it gives a window into the prevailing values of 18th century America, which was very religious, conservative, and yet (ironically) intrigued by "seduction novels."  I also find it interesting that the "villains" in the novel all have French names, and Rowson often equates French culture with liberal depravity.  America is a country founded by highly moral religious extremists (Puritans), and a strain of strict religious moralism runs throughout our literature.  And yet, even in a "moral" novel like Charlotte Temple, there is an undercurrent of sexual desire and freedom from constraint, even if it is considered forbidden or dangerous.

Lucy Temple is the sequel to Charlotte Temple.  More seduction!

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