Sentimentalism and Domestic Fiction

Shirley Samuels

in American Literature

ISBN: 9780199827251
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Sentimentalism and Domestic Fiction

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The form of the American domestic and sentimental novel developed in the late 18th and early 19th century. Drawing on 18th-century British novels that tended to privilege affective relations, such writing became associated with women writers in the 19th century through the rise of “separate spheres” ideology. This ideology was always a middle-class and often a white phenomenon that encouraged the gendered identification of work with men and home with women. During the 19th century, women writers in the United States often coupled the anti-Enlightenment emphasis on emotion with domestic plots that spoke to the power of feelings to effect right action. Popular with women readers, domestic novels written in the sentimental style tend to feature a young girl protagonist who must depend on her moral compass to guide her through an immoral world, a path that frequently leads to marriage. Literature that evoked a sentimental response to a particular injustice became identified with women co-opting sentimental conventions to shine light on social problems. The most popular American novel of the 19th century, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, used sentimentality to address the evils of slavery. Sentimental literature was also often associated with Christianity and/or forms of Christian benevolence applied to reform movements. Much of the reform literature addressed itself to developing a model of citizenship that dovetailed with class mobility, assuming the goal of middle-class belonging. Despite the sentimental genre’s contemporary popularity, it was later discriminated against as conventional. Since the 1970s and 1980s, critics have worked to resituate sentimentalism in the American literary canon. More recently, critics have also analyzed its social and economic impact, including its critique of consumerism and its circulation through print media, and they have reevaluated its scientific and ethical basis. Male writers and sentimental tropes have also been considered. Other critics, including Lauren Berlant, have sought to expand the cultural epistemology of sentimentalism beyond the 19th century to consider 20th century texts and movements. The most popular American writers of domestic and sentimental fiction included Lydia Maria Child, Maria Cummins, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, E. D. E. N. Southworth, and Susan B. Warner. Sensation fiction and temperance/abolition tracts were among the other contemporary genres that used sentimental tropes. The controversies over how sentimental literature presents political categories continue to be a salient feature of both historical and critical treatments.

Article.  6129 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (American)

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