Fiction > Susanna Haswell Rowson > Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth
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Susanna Haswell Rowson (1762–1824).  Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth.  1905.
 
Historical and Biographical Introduction
II. The Book
 
OF the twenty-four books and plays here enumerated, “Charlotte Temple” alone has survived. But what a survival that has been! Its early success in England merely foreshadowed the success it was destined to have in America, with scarcely an interruption down to the present day—a period of one hundred and fifteen years. As a survival among books of that generation it is probably matched in this country only by Franklin’s “Autobiography,” if indeed that book has matched it. Among novels it had no rival in its own day—not even “Evelina” or “The Children of the Abby.” None of Scott’s novels, which came a generation later, could have had so wide a reading here. Not until “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” appeared did an American work of fiction dispute its preeminence in point of circulation.  1
  Perhaps even now, in the number of copies actually printed and read, “Charlotte Temple” has not been exceeded by Mrs. Stowe’s work, because, being not protected by copyright, it has been constantly issued by many publishers in the cheapest possible forms of paper as well as cloth. The editions are innumerable. It has been published in London, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and several of the smaller American towns, including Ithaca, N. Y., Windsor, Vt., and Concord, N. H. Some of the early editions were in two volumes, but all later reprints seem to have been in one, tho some have appeared in the form of two volumes bound as one. Several have had a frontispiece, some a vignette, and a few have had illustrations in the text, but recent editions have commonly had no illustrations save now and then a frontispiece. In size the editions have been 18mos, 16mos, 12mos, and 8vos. A translation has been made into German, and a play based on the story long enjoyed much popularity.  2
  Duyckinck, writing in 1855, said the story was still “a popular classic at the cheap bookstalls and with traveling chapmen.” 1 Reprints of it to this day are offered in department stores, on sidewalk bookstalls, and by pushcart dealers. In the little stationery stores of tenement districts it can usually be found on shelves where are kept some hundreds of second-hand or shop-worn paper covered novels. The shopkeeper will probably say he keeps “Charlotte Temple” constantly in stock, and that it is one of his best-selling books. A collector in New York many years ago had secured a large shelfful of various editions, said to number about one hundred. Mr. Nason did not exaggerate the actual facts when he offered up the following tribute to the popularity of this book:
          “It has stolen its way alike into the stud of the divine and into the workshop of the mechanic; into the parlor of the accomplished lady and the bedchamber of her waiting-maid; into the log hut on the extreme borders of modern civilization and into the forecastle of the whale ship on the lonely ocean. It has bee read by the gray-bearded professor after his divine Plato; by the beardless clerk after balancing his accounts by night; by the traveler waiting for his next conveyance at the village inn; by the schoolgirl stealthily in her seat. It has beguiled the workman in his hut at night in the deep solitudes of the forest; it has cheated the farmer’s son of many an hour, while poring over its fascinating pages, seated around the broken spinning-wheel in the old attic; it has drawn tears from the miner’s eyes in the dim twilight of his subterranean galley; it has unlocked the secret sympathies of the veteran soldier in his tent before the day of battle.”
  3
  In the best modern editions the integrity of the text has been better preserved perhaps than the circumstances, carefully considered, would have led one to expect, but, as already stated, the text to-day is extremely corrupt. Most errors in these editions were due to the carelessness of printers, since they seldom suggest the hand of an indiscreet editor or publisher. The original Preface I have not found in any available edition issued since 1803. The poetical quotations given on the title-pages are also missing from editions printed since the very early one, and changes have been made in the chapter-headings, one heading having been dropped altogether.  4
  Once errors had crept into the text, it can be understood how they were almost inevitably repeated at the next setting of the type. With each resetting further errors would be made, so that an edition now current might show accumulations from three, or possibly four, generations of compositors. So formidable a total of errors (1265, large and small, by actual count) gives further evidence of the extraordinary popularity of Mrs. Rowson’s little book.  5
  In one edition among those I have seen, systematic condensation of the text has occurred, and other condensed editions are known to have been published. The one referred to was issued in Philadelphia in 1865, with the author’s name omitted from the title-page. At least one-fourth of the matter has been eliminated, some of the chapters have been entirely rewritten, and their number reduced from thirty-five to twenty-eight. The publishers announced on the title-page that this was “the only correct and authentic edition” of the book; declared, in an introduction, that it was “the only correct one ever issued,” and that it has been “printed from a copy of the original publication,” which of course was impossible.  6
  It was a thin, paper-covered octavo, with illustrations showing styles of dress worn in 1865—that is, ninety years later than the period of the story. Besides these sensational woodcuts in the text, it pretended to have a likeness of Charlotte, “taken from an original portrait,” but looking like a fashion-plate, Charlotte being arrayed in an evening dress supported by a hoopskirt. This stupid misrepresentation of Charlotte is reproduced elsewhere in the present volume, with the sensational cover-title which the portrait was supposed to adorn. As an appendix, an article on the tombstone in Trinity churchyard was printed with an outline of “Lucy Temple.” It was written by John Barnitz Bacon. 2 Owing to these pictorial and editorial features, newly introduced, the publishers were able to copyright this edition.  7
  Other liberties, much more reprehensible, have been taken with the book. In the slums of large cities, many years ago, perverted editions were common, the text having been altered in a way to secure large sales. With sensational titles printed in type that suggests the “scare-heads” of newspapers, and representing Charlotte as a noted courtesan, copies were unscrupulously paraded on the streets and sold in large numbers. About 1870 a sensational story-paper, then just started in New York, printed, with one of its advertising posters, a large so-called portrait of Charlotte, which is reproduced in the present volume, but reduced to less than one-fourth the original size. One of the features of the paper to which particular attention was called in the advertisement was a serial story entitled, “The Fastest Girl in New York.”  8
  By means of these publications, now forgotten, Charlotte’s character became much perverted in the minds of ill-informed people, among whom doubtless were persons of respectability and intelligence. Something of that influence has survived to this day in the impressions which many retain of the real character of Charlotte Temple.  9
  The text of the rare first American edition, which appeared in Philadelphia while Mrs. Rowson was living there, has been carefully followed in this reprint. A copy was obligingly lent for the purpose by its owner, Mabel Osgood Wright. The original owner, as shown by an autograph on the title-page of the first volume, was Susanna Rodgers, the inscription being dated September 25, 1794. Except for the stains of time and twenty-one pages which in the bottom margin have been invaded by a bookworm, the copy is perfect. The two volumes are bound as one in half morocco, the number of pages for the two volumes being 87 and 83 respectively.  10
 
Note 1. “Cyclopedia of American Literature.” [back]
Note 2. Mr. Bacon wrote under the penname of “John Tripod,” and in 1870 published “A Legendary History of New York.” [back]
 
 
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