Annotation: Blythe Forcey’s “Charlotte Temple and the End of Epistolarity” (1991)

Peer-Review: 0

This is an annotation for a paper I am currently writing on Martha Meredith Read’s Margaretta. See my prospectus here.

Forcey, Blythe. “Charlotte Temple and the End of Epistolarity.” American Literature 63.2 (June 1991): 225-241. Print.

In this article Forcey identifies the “epistolary novel” as an unsustainable aesthetic form, asserting that, “in the fast-changing, polyglot world of late eighteenth-century Anglo-America, it fell victim to the same forces of seduction and betrayal that its heroines were unable to avoid” (225). To justify her provocative argument, she relies on Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple as an ideal model for analyzing the demise of this literary mode. Unlike conventional epistolary novels, Forcey emphasizes the important role that “Rowson’s narrative voice” plays in relating Charlotte’s tale as well as in moderating our responses to it (228). She claims that the motherly persona Rowson assumes in the story directs readers, telling them exactly how to interpret each character’s actions and feelings. Without this “narrative guidance,” Forcey argues, “the epistolary novel could not make the successful crossing to the New World” because it is an aesthetic form that relies on “not only correspondence between the writers within the novel but also a correspondence between the writer of the novel and its readers” (228, 229). Ultimately, it is this understanding between the novel’s author and his or her readers that becomes strained in the new nation. As individuals with diverse backgrounds and different social and moral codes begin to populate America, Forcey asserts that novelists can no longer assume that “they know their readers and that their readers know them” (229). Consequently, the popularity of a “‘narrator-less’ [epistolary] novel” becomes impossible to sustain in an environment where “miscommunication, seduction, and even revolution are possible” (240). Forcey even takes her argument a step further by claiming that the epistolary novel form is especially dangerous when used to relate narratives of seduction because it often “leaves the “female protagonist exposed, vulnerable, and even invisible” (230). She therefore suggests that Rowson’s narrative guidance in Charlotte Temple signifies the “end of epistolarity” and the “emergence of the American domestic novel, a form uniquely suited to address the needs of a young nation” (241). However, my research on Martha Meredith Read’s Margaretta challenges the assumptions Forcey presents in her article. Rather than an obsolete form, Read’s work testifies to the continuing vitality of the epistolary novel as a means to articulate the new nation’s struggle with its identity in the post-revolutionary period. While there are some markers of authorial guidance in the text, Read nevertheless presents her heroine as a strong female character who actively defends both her chastity and republican ideals. As a result, rather than analyzing how the epistolary form breaks down, I would like to explore in my paper how it changes in response to the pressures and anxieties individuals faced in America’s early national period.