Recap: MLA 2012

This year’s MLA saw me organizing a panel, instead of presenting on one like last year. The panel was entitled, “Nineteenth-Century American Sentiment, Radical or Otherwise,” and was dedicated to featuring current scholarly work in the field of nineteenth-century sentimental American literature. Of course, this panel reflected many of my own interests, particularly the last section of my dissertation which deals with sentimental fiction and its relation to the culture that surrounded it (a post on finishing my dissertation is part of the backlog I mentioned before, though I did manage to get up a table of contents).

My goal for the panel was two-fold. First, I wanted to feature papers that dealt with the political nature of sentimental literature in the period, with a particular eye toward its use in the radicalization—or otherwise—of its readers. Second, I am interested more broadly in accounts of sentimental culture which are at once more complex and more specific. I believe that scholars all too often judge the political implications of sentiment from the perspective of the present, using criteria unavailable to most individuals of the era being judged. Along these lines, each of the papers articulated areas in which a nuanced vision of sentiment illuminates the complex cultural situation of the nineteenth century.

The first paper was given by Kevin Pelletier of the University of Richmond, and was entitled “‘Can Fear of Fire Make Me Love?’: Nineteenth-Century Apocalyptic Sentimentalism.” He argued Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous injunction to “feel right” is often read too narrowly, focusing on a single class of sentiments defined by love, compassion, and sympathy at the expense of a whole other class defined by fear. However, as is obvious in Stowe’s texts themselves, nineteenth-century sentimentalism had profound misgivings about the ability of love alone to do the work that many scholars claim for it, i.e., the forging of social bonds, often outside the confines of received class, gender, and racial roles. Thus, visions of an apocalyptic God, with all their attendant sentiments of fear and terror, were regularly employed to buttress love and transform those recalcitrant to its righteous powers. In this regard, he juxtaposed David Walker’s Appeal and its invocation of apocalyptic sentimentalism to Stowe’s use of a similar discourse in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Between the two, we not only see an important expansion of which forms of affect are included in ‘the sentiments,’ but an important connection to a theological discourse which viewed fear and love not as antagonists, but as necessarily complementary forces. It also demonstrates how and why Walker’s situation lead him to form “[h]is own theory of sentiments” as a necessary political tool with regard to often less-than-sympathetic white audiences.

Second was Leslie Petty’s “‘Every woman … should raise her voice’: Rethinking White Women’s Activism in William Wells Browns Clotel.“ While following upon similar themes, it shifted them into the register of early African-American fiction. Using as her touchstone William Wells Brown’s 1847 lecture to the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, she argued that Clotel undertakes a conscious recasting of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The text’s heroine, Georgiana Peck Carlton, constructs a less passive role for white women’s activism in antebellum America. Going beyond the politics of ‘indirect influence,’ she not only presents an alternate model of feeling for contemporary readers, she also demonstrates how sentimental tropes and characters could and were taken up and redeployed beyond the confines of what was deemed socially acceptable. In Clotel’s rewriting of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we see divergent discourses—slave narrative and sentimental novel—stitched together to form something new, which nonetheless relied upon the power of both its original genres. As Petty notes, “it is in his depiction of this white activist heroine that Brown most consciously critiques white female abolitionists … even while he acknowledges their importance and imagines ways that their activist impulses can be translated into immediate, fundamental reform … by imagining a white woman who both ‘feels right’ and does something about it.”

Finally, April Davidauskis’s  presented a paper which attempted to call into question the very terms of the debate over sentiment’s radical or conservative penchant. Her “Deemphasizing Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century American Culture” used E.D.E.N. Southworth’s popular, roguish heroine Capitola Black to analyze “how the gendering process works for women beyond sentimentality, yet within normativity” in the nineteenth century. With a wink at Sarah Palin, she invoked such roguish figures as Gothic heroines, protagonists in romances of the U.S.-Mexico war, cross-dressing women, actresses, activists, and performers to demonstrate how, in her view, “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.” Focusing the terms of the debate on sentiment not only obscures these other possibilities, Davidauskis argued, but may make identities that were normative at the time look more radical than they actually were.

In addition to posing questions for each of the panelists, I also attempted to distill some commonalities in my response to these three papers. Though divergent in many respects, I found that each of the texts manifested the increasing complexity of the concepts which govern our discussion of the sentimental and the sentiments. Indeed, each paper could be seen as bringing to light a contemporary critique of what it means to “feel right” as a political act. They echoed Cindy Weinstein’s warning against “monolithic and consistently pernicious account[s] of sympathy” which “[fail] to take into account the extraordinarily rich and ideologically diverse debate about sympathy that was taking place in the antebellum period” (link). Just as David Walker formulated ‘his own theory of sentiments’ with particular political goals in mind, different discourses of sentiment abounded at the time. From mesmerism and animal magnetism, to the medical discourse of the nerves, to handbooks on female conduct, multiple cultural discourses competed to inculcate the proper ways of knowing, acting, and feeling about the world. Indeed, it may be that what all these discourses show is how the sentimental itself is probably neither radical nor conservative in and of itself, but a battleground upon which various tactics and strategies play themselves out. Returning to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s injunction to “feel right,”  I concluded by arguing that, in the debate over sentimental culture, we have placed too much emphasis on the feel and not enough on the right.