MLA 2012 | Nineteenth-Century American Sentiment, Radical or Otherwise


Cindy Weinstein, California Institute of Technology (link)


“Can Fear of Fire Make Me Love?”: Nineteenth-Century Apocalyptic Sentimentalism

Kevin Pelletier, University of Richmond (link)

With few exceptions, contemporary criticism reads nineteenth-century sentimental fiction as a literature of love. When Harriet Beecher Stowe famously asserted that the moral growth of the nation depended on each citizen’s ability to “feel right,” she voiced a sentiment shared by many of her contemporaries. And it is no surprise that scholars have assumed Stowe’s injunction to “feel right” was a call to feel compassion and love, for it was through a rhetoric of Christian love that writers such as Stowe challenged the authority of an otherwise inflexible patriarchal culture that privileged a punitive and loveless Old Testament theology. Indeed, modern critics who wanted to claim that a formidable feminist presence existed within the American Renaissance had to separate the sentimental tradition from nineteenth-century Calvinism, which scholars have historically equated with patriarchal power. Accordingly, they have replaced Calvinism’s severe brand of evangelical theology, which stressed the judgment of God, with a feminized sentimental philosophy that emphasized salvation through motherly love. As a result, the prevailing scholarly view understands love to be the revolutionary impulse behind nineteenth-century sentimental reform. The problem with this view, however, is that while scholars continue to treat love as the autonomous force of the sentimental tradition, nineteenth-century sentimentalists, including Stowe, expressed profound misgivings about the capacity of love to establish the kinds of sympathetic bonds contemporary critics now take for granted. In my presentation, I will reevaluate these scholarly views by investigating a crucial but neglected dimension of the nineteenth-century culture of sentiment: its passionate investment in fear as an indispensable engine of cultural and political transformation. When sentimentalists could not depend on love to produce a sympathetic response in readers, fear often served as an incentive to love, energizing love’s power and underwriting its potential to transform Americans from fallible sinners into moral beings. Fear, thus, exists at the center of nineteenth-century sentimental strategies for effecting social change and cohering disparate communities, often bolstering love when love fails and operating as the principal mechanism for establishing sympathetic connections across lines of difference. As a way to inspire a profound sense of fear in their audience, nineteenth-century sentimentalists often deployed prophecies of an apocalyptic God, a familiar source of dread in Protestant America that constituted the most efficient way to politicize terror in the antebellum period. Rather than existing outside of or in conflict with sentimentalism, Calvinist prophecies of apocalypse helped to shape the very formation of the nineteenth-century sentimental tradition. I will focus my presentation on Stowe’s two major antislavery novels (Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Dred) as well as a few works that are not traditionally considered as part of the sentimental tradition (especially David Walker’s Appeal) in orderto propose a new genealogy for understanding literary sentimentalism as a complex negotiation of seemingly oppositional emotional economies.

“Every Woman … Should Raise Her Voice”: Rethinking White Women’s Activism in William Wells Brown’s Clotel

Leslie Petty, Rhodes College (link)

In 1847, William Wells Brown gave a lecture to the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem in which he declared, “We are not those who would ask the men to help us and leave the women at home. We want all to help us. A million of women are in Slavery, and as long as a single woman is in slavery, every woman in the community should raise her voice against that sin, that crying evil that is degrading her sex.” The lecture was controversial because it was hosted by a women’s group, and Brown’s appeal is suitably unconventional, rejecting the notion that the female audience members should stay in the private sphere and instead encouraging them to speak publicly against the “sin” of slavery. In my paper, I argue that Brown’s ostensibly sentimental novel, Clotel, dramatizes the same kind of radical behavior that he exhorts in his speech, opening up possibilities for white female activists that are suppressed in other abolitionist literature, most notably Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Relying on historical documents as well as scholarship on women’s nineteenth century political activity, I argue that Brown consciously rewrites scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to expose the limitations of sentimental model of white women’s activism, which relies on an essentializing notions of womanhood and which advocates “indirect influence” in the domestic realm as a primary strategy for freeing the slaves. Brown counters these limitations through his heroine, Georgiana Peck Carlton, whose abolitionist impulse stems as much from her intellectual activity as her religious conviction and who takes direct action by freeing her slaves and sending them North.  

“Deemphasizing Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century American Culture”

April Davidauskis, University of Southern California  (link)

Too often scholars have overemphasized sentimental culture in order to understand not only what “women’s culture” is, but also to limn out the terms of normative feminine identity.  That emphasis sets up a framework in which non-sentimental femininities often get read as non-normative, feminist, or queer.  I would maintain, in contrast, that these non-sentimental—or more precisely extra-sentimental—femininities are completely normative, recognizable, and desirable in their cultural moment.  Moreover, I think it is imprecise to articulate them only in terms of sentimental culture as if that is the only vector consolidating culturally-recognizable femininities.  I want to intervene and shift focus from sentimental culture as the primary way to understand “women” in the nineteenth century by focusing on the novels of E.D.E.N. Southworth, who, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, seems to engage in these debates over sentimental culture’s influence.  Publishing so frequently and adopting so many generic influences, Southworth gives us a model for the ways we should read not only her characters, but also the way that gender is culturally articulated in the mid-nineteenth-century United States. I will argue that Southworth and her incredibly popular Capitola Black create a particular fantasy of femininity that represents a desirable femininity that is both like and unlike the sentimental heroine, but not exceptional for the time.  We misread Capitola and cultural expressions of femininities like hers when we overemphasize sentimental culture as the primary expression of normative femininity and of women’s culture.  Instead, women’s culture and femininity were being constituted around unsentimental things—sensational fiction and the Gothic romance, story-paper fiction of the U.S.-Mexico War, the reoccurrence of cultural narratives of cross-dressing women, especially cross-dressing soldiers, the cultural prominence of actresses, performers, and activists.  Women’s culture does not only constitute women, but, as many scholars have argued, also constitute the nation, economics, etc.  Therefore, to consider only sentimental culture as the expression of the “ideal” mainstream femininity circulating causes us to misread how femininity is created and creates, how desire constitutes and is constituted, and what really is normative in a particular era.  And, significantly, how one expression of identity can be both normative and rebellious at the same time with no contradiction.  If we truly want to understand why and how certain gender and sexual expressions manifest and become important, we have to finish up our business of privileging sentimentality in American culture as the main expression of women’s culture.


Richard A. Garner, University at Buffalo (SUNY) (link)

Program Information

127th MLA Annual Convention in Seattle (January 5th - January 8th; linkmobile link)

Saturday, 07 January

588. Nineteenth-Century American Sentiment, Radical or Otherwise

5:15–6:30 p.m., 307, Washington State Convention Center

A special session


Cindy Weinstein, California Inst. of Tech.

1. “‘Can Fear of Fire Make Me Love?’: Nineteenth-Century Apocalyptic Sentimentalism,” Kevin Pelletier, Univ. of Richmond

2. “‘Every Woman … Should Raise Her Voice’: Rethinking White Women’s Activism in William Wells Brown’s Clotel,” Leslie Petty, Rhodes Coll.

3. “Deemphasizing Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century American Culture,” April Davidauskis, Univ. of Southern California


Richard A. Garner, Univ. at Buffalo, State Univ. of New York