The impact of the sentimental novel on eighteen- and nineteenth-century American culture was unrivalled by any other literary genre at the time. Immensely popular among the rising market of female ... read more
The impact of the sentimental novel on eighteen- and nineteenth-century American culture was unrivalled by any other literary genre at the time. Immensely popular among the rising market of female middle-class consumers, the sentimental novel played an incisive role in shaping opinions and feelings about everything from democracy in the early republic to the role of women and the crisis over slavery. Nevertheless, it is only in recent years with the emergence of feminist and historicist readings in the 1980s that sentimental fiction has received the sustained critical attention it deserves. From Hawthorne’s notorious dismissal of sentimental writers as “a damned mob of scribbling women” to James Baldwin’s critique of the genre’s “ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion”, the sentimental novel has long been ridiculed for its stock characters, formulaic plots, didactic style, and above all its indulgence in feeling. Looking beyond (and through) such dismissive accounts of sentimental aesthetics, this class will explore the important “cultural work” (Tomkins) performed through the fictional negotiation of social relations fraught with divisive issues of gender, race, and class. In our reading of some of the most popular and influential novels ever published in the United States, we will pay close attention to their language of tears, blushes, sighs, and exclamation marks! Through readings, class discussions, and student presentations, we will trace the origins of American sentimental fiction in the early republic to its apotheosis in the sentimental abolitionist rhetoric of the 1850s and 1860s.
We will read the following five novels: Susanna Rowson, Charlotte Temple (1791/94); Hannah Webster Foster, The Coquette (1797); Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); Fanny Fern, Ruth Hall (1854); and Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861).