Emerging in England in the mid- to late eighteenth century, and reflecting a similar trend in continental literature at the time, literary sentimentalism or "sensibility" prioritized feeling. It developed primarily as a middle-class phenomenon, reflecting the emphasis on compassion or feeling as a desirable character trait in the newly emergent middle class. Although, on the one hand, the reader might take pleasure in feeling itself, in England by the 1770s the rise of sensibility was also linked to a growing activism—the awareness of and concern for the suffering of others reflected in, for example, the antislavery movement, concerns about child labor, and the campaigns for better hospitals, prison reform, and charity schools as well as in the response to the suffering associated with the rapid rise of industrial capitalism and the urban misery caused by exploitative labor practices.
The following lines from Hannah More's (1745–1833) poem "Sensibility" (1782) sum up the varied attitudes involved in sensibility: the pleasure that one derives from feeling; the heartfelt moral dictate to do the right thing; and the way in which feeling inspires activism:
Sweet Sensibility! Thou keen delight!
Thou hasty moral! Sudden sense of right!
Thou untaught goodness! Virtue's precious seed!
Thou sweet precursor of the gen'rous deed!
The word "sentimental" is first known to have appeared in print in English in the 1740s. Becoming almost immediately popular, the term was used to describe the emotional state of a sensitive and "genteel" person, and sentiment began to play an important role in literature. As Louis Bredvold notes, "Drama and fiction had discovered that pathos could best soften the heart and raise the tear that betokens humanity" (pp. 416, 433). Among the earliest British novels that heralded the rise of sentimentalism were Samuel Richardson's Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) and Clarissa (1747–1748); Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1766); Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey (1768); and Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling (1771). According to Paul Langford, Mackenzie's novel was a "deliberate attempt to portray the sentimentalist as a benevolent man" (p. 481). To be a "man of feeling" became a desirable goal even among middle-class men of business.
The sentimental novel first made its way across the Atlantic in the form of the seduction narrative. After William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy appeared in 1789, Susanna Rowson's (1762–1824) Charlotte Temple (1794) became America's first bestseller. Rowson's novel inspired feeling, and generations of readers, men and women from all classes, wept over the hapless Charlotte's fate. Many of those readers were so moved by the novel that they made the pilgrimage to the heroine's presumed grave in Trinity Churchyard in New York, leaving flowers and other mementos. Yet as Cathy Davidson points out, it is a mistake to think of the novel as only sentimental. Subtitled A Tale of Truth, it portrays an all-too-common and very realistic situation: the seduction and betrayal of an innocent and ignorant young girl and her subsequent death in childbirth. Addressing the young female reader, Rowson assures her that, as Davidson notes, "she is not alone in a world in which she has no legal or political identity," where women are trivialized, and where the sexual double standard prevails ("Introduction," p. xvii). As Rowson says in her preface, compassion inspired her to write the novel, and she hopes that her words will help to prevent some of the miseries that she chronicles (p. 6).
During certain periods in American history, sentimentalism has been particularly evident in literature. One such period was the Progressive Era of the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, during which, as Jaime Harker points out, the "muckrakers" used a sentimental appeal to feeling in order to bring about social and economic reform (p. 56). Upton Sinclair's 1905 novel The Jungle, for example, vividly portrays moving scenes of the miserable working and living conditions of immigrants in the unregulated meat-packing industry. Essentially a middle-class movement, Progressivism was promoted by Protestant ministers, and Progressives often used religious rhetoric to attack the injustices of industrial capitalism.
The period in American history that is most commonly associated with sentimentalism is the mid-nineteenth century. The sentimentalism of this period has been defined in various ways. Some have characterized it as conservative, a rationalization of the status quo, while others have characterized it as radical and a means of effecting social change. But most sources agree that it is associated with femininity and domesticity, its primary characteristic being an emphasis on feeling and the affective bonds among human beings.
What differentiates mid-nineteenth-century sentimentalism from that of other periods, however, is that it is generally characterized as wholly female. Although women writers did not have a monopoly on feeling during this period, and their books were read by men as well as women, sentimentalism fit nicely into contemporary definitions of domestic womanhood. Also largely middle-class and incorporating religious rhetoric into their writing, the sentimental writers of this period were criticized by later, more secular critics seeking a "virile" masculine ethos. Twentieth-century critics wrote contemptuously about mid-nineteenth-century women writers, often without even reading their works. Fred Lewis Pattee characterized the period as "The Feminine Fifties" in his 1940 book by that title and called even so cynical and down-to-earth a writer as the satirical Fanny Fern the "most tearful and convulsingly 'female' moralizer" of the period (p. 110). Herbert Ross Brown's study of the antebellum period, The Sentimental Novel in America (1940), labeled sentimentality a "disease" and castigated women writers of the period for not dealing with what for him were the "real" issues: the [masculine] "national drama" of Manifest Destiny and the "rise of the common man" (pp. 358–359, 369–370). Following in this tradition, Ann Douglas in The Feminization of American Culture (1977) maintained that the intellectual "toughness" of the male-dominated Calvinism of the Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) had been undermined by the sentimentalism of feminized ministers and middle-class women writers. Dismissing the writers' attempts to effect social change, she held them responsible for the country's "introduction to consumerism" and mass culture (see, for example, pp. 5–7, 10–13). Other critics similarly criticized the sentimental novelists as essentially conservative writers who implicitly reified the values of the dominant bourgeois culture.
In contrast to critics like those cited above, more recent studies, particularly among feminist critics, have explored the cultural and aesthetic value of mid-nineteenth-century sentimentalism. Jane Tompkins's book Sensational Designs (1985) is a specific attack on Douglas's thesis that mid-nineteenth-century women writers destroyed a superior Puritan "male-dominated" tradition and advanced consumer culture and the status quo. Instead, says Tompkins, the sentimental novelists used the established value system to "effect a radical transformation of . . . society" (p. 145). Describing "sentimental power" as "a political enterprise" that spoke to "large masses of readers," Tompkins asserts that the sentimental novelists reached down to the "cultural realities" that modernist criticism has disdained (pp. 126, xiv, xiii). According to Tompkins, twentieth-century critics deliberately established literary standards that denigrated everything that nineteenth-century women writers represented: "In reaction against their world view, and perhaps even more against their success, twentieth-century critics have taught generations of students to equate popularity with debasement, emotionality with ineffectiveness, religiosity with fakery, domesticity with triviality, and all of these, implicitly, with womanly inferiority" (p. 123).
During most of the second half of the twentieth century, the concept of "sentimentality" had indeed taken on negative connotations. The works by nineteenth-century women writers—even those with important cultural and literary significance—were totally excluded from high school and college syllabi, and for the most part were out of print. Alice Cary, Lydia Sigourney, Lydia Maria Child, Susan Warner, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fanny Fern, Maria Cummins, E. D. E. N. Southworth, Frances Harper, Elizabeth Stoddard, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and Augusta Evans Wilson are among the mid-nineteenth-century writers whose names were on everyone's tongue during this period but who a hundred years later had seemingly been erased from history. Until the last two decades of the twentieth century the only nineteenth-century woman writer that American college students read was Emily Dickinson. Part of the reason for this was the literary movement called the New Criticism, which dominated literary scholarship and pedagogy during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Eschewing any discussion of social or cultural issues or emotion, and focusing wholly on the work of art as a "well-wrought urn" divorced from history, the New Critics looked for irony and ambiguity, not feeling and social reform.
Literary scholars determined what books were published and what books were read, but in terms of attitudes toward sentimentalism, the cultural climate of the time was also significant. In the 1940s and 1950s postwar American liberals, disillusioned by Joseph Stalin's purges in the Soviet Union, came to associate sentimentalism with naive ideology and turned to the pragmatic vision of a masculine America. Thus the American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in his 1949 book The Vital Center, condemned the "persistent and sentimental optimism [that] has endowed Doughface progressivism with what in the middle of the twentieth century are fatal weaknesses: a weakness for impotence" (p. 40). The "man of feeling" was no longer to be admired—in politics or in literature. And sentimentality, identified as "soft," feminine, and emasculating, whether that of the mid- or late nineteenth century, was seriously out of fashion. Literary critics were repelled by or afraid of emotion and evinced what Susan Harris in Nineteenth-Century American Women's Novels (1990) calls a "deep-seated revulsion from the feminine" (p. 5). As Suzanne Clark notes in Sentimental Modernism (1991), this "reversal against the sentimental helped to establish avant-garde intellectuals as a discourse community defined by its adversarial relationship to domestic culture" (p. 1).
In an article in the New York Ledger titled "What Shall We Do?" (2 February 1867) Fanny Fern expressed her own determination to do what she could to address social and political issues. Even though, as a woman, she had no political power, she did what many other women writers did at the time: she used her pen.
What if you are so constituted that injustice and wrong to others rouses you as if it were done to yourself? What if the miseries of your fellow beings, particularly those you are powerless to relieve, haunt you day and night? . . . What if you cannot carry out the practically atheistic creed of so many of the present day? Of so many young men—to their shame, be it said—who with a man's chances fold their supine hands over all these abuses? . . . Well, rather than be that torpid thing, and it a man, I would rather be a woman tied hand and foot, bankrupt in chances, and worry over what I am powerless to help. At least I can stand at my post, like a good soldier, because it is my post; meantime—I had rather be taken off that by a chance shot, than rust in a corner with ossification of the heart.
Fern, Ruth Hall and Other Writings, pp. 336–337.
It was not until the late twentieth century that feminist scholars, having recovered the works of a number of nineteenth-century women writers, began to deal with the question of sentimentality. Some were embarrassed by the sentimentalism in the works, but instead of condemning the works as Douglas had done, they either ignored it or attempted to explain away the sentimentality as "subversive." Others were not bothered by the sentimentality, while still others, like Tompkins, found it a strength rather than a weakness. These latter critics have looked at sentimentalism both for its cultural significance and for its aesthetics.
Like Tompkins, who asserted the transformative power of sentimental texts, cultural critics have analyzed specific works in terms of the authors' efforts at social reform. Although some scholars have criticized mid-century writers for buying into the status quo of the dominant society, such criticism cannot be applied to all writers. Moreover, such criticism fails to recognize the complexity of sentimentalism: a writer who believed strongly in the religious teachings of her culture could also oppose other aspects of that culture which she felt did not live up to those teachings. If a writer took seriously the dictates of religion and conscience as well as the democratic teachings about equality, the writer could be inspired to attack inequities that she saw in the system. The basic rule of thumb in sentimentalism was that one had to "feel right." Using a deliberate appeal to feeling, sentimental writers spoke out strongly against slavery, for example. As Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) wrote in the preface to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), her intention in the novel was "to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race" (p. 3). And Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897) wrote in the preface to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), "I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered" (p. 1).
In addition to their efforts with respect to bringing about an end to slavery, sentimental writers also weighed in on gender issues, revealing such injustices as married women's property laws, women's legal infirmities, and cultural attitudes demeaning to women. Fanny Fern (1811–1872) in Ruth Hall (1855) and E. D. E. N. Southworth (1819–1899) in The Hidden Hand (1859), for example, used conventional strategies to reveal inequities in the situation of women. By portraying the fact that sane women could be locked away in insane asylums with impunity, that women had no control over any money that they earned or brought into a marriage, that their employment opportunities were limited to exploitative labor or prostitution, and that they were expected to obey without question even the most wrongheaded or cruel husband, such texts, by gaining the sympathy of readers and their admiration for a gritty heroine, advanced the cause of women's rights even without seeming to. A hundred years later, critics might ask why such texts were so popular. But it is important to remember that sentimentality was the principal frame of reference of the time. As Michael Riffaterre and other students of narrative have pointed out, a text's verisimilitude is dependent upon references to the "sociolect," that is, the "myths, traditions, ideological and esthetic stereotypes, commonplaces, and themes" that are harbored by its audience (p. 130). Thus, nineteenth-century writers' portrayals of people and situations that contemporary readers could relate to, in a language and within a frame of reference that all readers were familiar with, reached a wider audience and could be more persuasive than any abstract treatise.
Even the most "sentimental" of the sentimental novelists used the appeal to feeling to provide a guide for women who might be floundering in a society that accorded them little respect as individuals. Certainly the reason why Susan Warner's (1819–1885) The Wide, Wide World (1850) and Maria Cummins's (1827–1866) The Lamplighter (1854) were such blockbusters was because they spoke to such women. In spite of the fact that the dominant culture had no use for higher education for women (Walt Whitman in 1857 argued against the establishment of public high schools for girls because, he said, women's function was simply to be good wives and mothers, and Dr. Edward Clarke reflected long-standing popular prejudices when he warned in 1873 that too much education would damage a woman's reproductive organs), both novels emphasize the intellectual development of their heroines. And in spite of the fact that the dominant culture decreed that women should never question male authority (a story in Godey's Lady's Book in 1850—ironically titled "Woman's Rights"—praises a young woman for silently and passively bowing her head in acquiescence to the blows and verbal abuse from her ill-tempered father), both heroines not only question male authority, but Gertrude in The Lamplighter actively defies her guardian and leaves home in order to follow her conscience. The lesson of sentimentalism was that one had to do what made one "feel right"—whether it meant defying one man's rule or a nation's laws—and this was a powerful lesson for the legally and socially powerless.
In this sense Christianity, rather than being only an opiate to lull women into passive acceptance of an unjust system as some critics would claim, was often used by women—who had no political rights and whose opinions were trivialized—to support a position that was contrary to national law or their culture's mores. Thus, Ruth Hall in Fern's novel finds in religion the courage to defy her relatives and the whole social structure in order to seek economic independence—then an ignominious role for a middle-class woman (p. 123). Frances Harper (1825–1911) in her 1859 short story "The Two Offers" uses religion to defend her antisocial position defending productive spinsterhood against the misery of a failed marriage and urging education for women, including African American women: "scope should be given to [woman's] Heaven-endowed and God-given faculties. The true aim of female education" should be the development of "all the faculties of the human soul" (p. 109). Mrs. Bird in Uncle Tom's Cabin, in disagreeing with her senator husband who has voted in favor of the Fugitive Slave Law, asserts, "I don't know anything about politics, but I have read my Bible" (p. 89). Similarly, Stowe in writing Uncle Tom's Cabin gained credence—and clearly also courage—from her appeal to a higher authority, invoking God in her attack on America's law. The novel concludes with the powerful warning: "Both North and South have been guilty before God; and the Christian Church has a heavy account to answer . . . for, not surer is the eternal law by which the millstone sinks in the ocean, than that stronger law by which injustice and cruelty shall bring on nations the wrath of Almighty God!" (p. 485).
THE AESTHETICS OF SENTIMENT
Although analysis of sentimental texts has focused primarily on cultural criticism, a number of scholars have also looked at the aesthetics of the genre. What such scholars have recognized is that sentimental texts must be looked at within the context of their own value system. Modernist criteria have only served to denigrate the sentimental. For most of the twentieth century it was impossible to undertake literary analysis of sentimental texts because they were considered by modernism to be inherently nonliterary. Developments in other disciplines also helped to pave the way for the feminist reevaluation of nineteenth-century women's writings. With the New Historicism and Foucauldian theory asking questions about authority and challenging the concept of objective truth, scholars began to question the modernist criteria that had consigned sentimental literature to the dustheap. In the 1980s and 1990s, following Tompkins's assertion in Sensational Designs that sentimental writing is "complex and significant" and the titular question in Susan Harris's 1991 essay "But Is It Any Good?" critics began to look at sentimental texts as one might look at texts in any genre—examining the text within a specific set of conventions and assessing the literary techniques employed by the author.
In her 1997 essay "Reclaiming Sentimental Literature," Joanne Dobson focuses on two aspects of sentimental rhetoric: the use of language and troping practices, both of which, she says, illustrate the "effectiveness of sentimentalism's rhetoric" and the "authenticity of its sentiment" (p. 269). The language, she says, is accessible and understated, almost conversational, because the goal of sentimental literature is communication. The most common tropes are metaphors for the threat of the destruction of human connections. These tropes are consistent with the thematic concerns of sentimental literature, which, she says, emphasize "relational experience and the consequences of its rupture" (p. 268).
Some scholars have traced the historic beginnings of aesthetic theory and its relationship to sentimentalism. Wendy Dasler Johnson looks to the eighteenth century in her 1999 study of nineteenth-century American male sentimentalists in relation to Julia Ward Howe's (1819–1910) poetry. Using Howe as what she calls a "heuristic" for men's sentimental poetry, she found that Howe and John Greenleaf Whittier, for example, both used eighteenth-century belletristic rhetorical codes "designed to produce sympathetic identification" with their readers in order to move them to social action, while Henry Wadsworth Longfellow shared with Howe the use of the literary device of the eroticized woman writer imported from nineteenth-century Europe (p. 18). Elizabeth Maddock Dillon in "Sentimental Aesthetics" (2004) traces the history of aesthetic studies, showing its historic closeness to sentimentalism. Aesthetics, she points out, "developed in response to the revolutions of the eighteenth century," which ushered in the liberal idea of self-government and brought to sentimentalism the concept of individual autonomy or "liberal subjectivity" (p. 497). Looking at nineteenth-century American texts in relation to the writings of Friedrich Schiller, she discusses the moral sense of aesthetic theory that bound the sentimental subject to the community through sympathy and led to the exercise of political agency (pp. 498–499, 508). Thus, she says, the moral tone of sentimental writing can be seen as the "product of aesthetic theory rather than solely the language of Christian reform" (p. 509).
Scholars who have analyzed the literary effectiveness of sentimental texts have found that, just as in any genre, some writers are more skillful than others and some works are more successful than others, but for the most part they have found that, once rid of modernism's prejudices, one can find enduring thematic value and talented literary expression in sentimental writing. To Harris's question "Is it any good?" the answer more often than not is an unqualified "yes."
Although sentimental literature—like the literature of any genre—was sometimes used inauthentically, and although some of its assumptions are no longer intellectually fashionable, the values of sentimentalism still resonate today. As Joanne Dobson wrote in 1997, "In a world of mortality, of absolute and certain loss—the universal and immutable human condition—a body of literature giving primacy to affectional connections and responsibilities still reflects the dilemmas, anxieties, and tragedies of individual lives" (p. 280).
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Joyce W. Warren