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Sentimental Prophet of Early American Literature
Susanna Rowson: Sentimental Prophet of Early American Literature opens the early American writer’s works to new, provocative interpretations based on the theory that her responses to social issues incorporate notions of righteousness, justice, accountability, and loyalty drawn from prophets in the Hebrew Bible. Steven Epley argues that Rowson’s sentimentalism—a literary mode that portrays characters undergoing strong emotions and evokes similar responses from readers—reflects the rhetorical style of the Bible’s first prophet, Moses, and its understanding of the “heart” not just as a metaphor for human kindness and tenderness but also as a source of wickedness. Epley relocates the widespread introduction of Jewish values into American discourse from the height of Jewish immigration (roughly 1890 to 1940) to the early republic, given Rowson’s vast audience and influence on American letters. Her novel Charlotte Temple outsold every other American work of fiction until Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the 1850s.
“Epley strives to make us reconsider, first, Susannah Rowson, and then by implication, makes us want to reread other late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century American authors with an eye to the potentially religious underpinning of their works. This is an impressive and impeccable work of scholarship; one that pushes us far toward acknowledging how much we still need to know about this major early American author.” —Philip F. Gura, author of Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel