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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 11.3 (1999) 29-56

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"No Cold or Empty Heart": Polygenesis, Scientific Professionalization, and the Unfinished Business of Male Sentimentalism

Dana D. Nelson

There's a new school of thought on the question of sentiment that complicates our long-standing arguments about it as a (bad) female indulgence, a (bad) feminizing discipline or a (good/bad) feminizing cultural agenda, one that, following the spirit of American Literature editor Cathy Davidson, we might call the "No More Separate Spheres!" school. 1 These works historicize the development of nineteenth-century sentimentalism from its origins in Scottish Enlightenment School moral philosophy. They study its political contributions to the formation of, and practice of politics in, the early nation. Perhaps their most interesting contribution comes in their developing challenge to the perdurable "feminization of American culture" thesis 2 : this new school traces the developing association of sentiment with (and its assignment to) women as a national plot, where white women become the bearers of increasingly privatized virtue and of paradoxically symbolic and material bodies, as ideological supplements to the disembodied/universal white male citizen-subject. For example, Liz Barnes and Julia Stern have recently pushed the implications of Shirley Samuels's earlier project of studying "translations of revolutionary discourse"--its anxieties and disciplinary [End Page 29] agendas--into (often violent) sentimental plots and prescriptions for family life (Samuels 19). Both Stern and Barnes insist that sentiment is not just a political, but a nationally foundational discourse. Barnes elaborates: "American culture's preoccupation with familial feeling as the foundation for sympathy, and sympathy as the basis of a democratic republic, ultimately confounds the difference between familial and social bonds" (xi) thereby contributing to the affective privatization of citizenship. Somewhat differently, Stern proposes that "in the face of the overwhelming hate, anger, fear and grief that grip the nation in the 1790s, the sensationalist novelistic practices of the era constitute a form of psychic realism" (6). She reads such discourse as a democratic counternarrative that fleshes out the concerns of those elided by new, exclusionary constructions of citizenship in the early nation.

This most recent wave of critics declines to make the question of sentiment a question of women's agency. Instead, they look for answers in discursive formations and discursive practices. Stern, for instance, concentrates on outlining how sentimental discourse defined a feminized voice, while looking to male authors like Sterne, Goethe, William Hill Brown, and Charles Brockden Brown as examples alongside women writers. Somewhat differently, Lora Romero has explicated the very production of the figure of the sentimental woman in nineteenth-century domestic discourse, arguing that "her" overstabilization as an undifferentiated, mass-consuming, unself-critical figure works to secure a counterpart construction: the intellectually alienated and emotionally "beset" male author/artist. 3 Romero's analysis compels us to look beyond the parameters of inquiry set by those terms in our more recent discussions of sentiment and antebellum culture more generally.

These critics dissociate the subject of sentiment from its link with (good or bad) femininity, a link seemingly writ in concrete, from Hawthorne's notorious denunciation to Herbert Ross Brown's paternalistic analyses, to Leslie Fiedler's macho dismissals, to the 1980s debate between Ann Douglas and Jane Tompkins. 4 Just as important, they have illuminated sentiment as a multivalent political discourse that can have simultaneously radical and conservative impulses--and complicated consequences. To take one of the most striking recent examples: in a tour de force essay entitled "Poor Eliza," Lauren Berlant draws on a dense network of dramatic, textual, and critical rewritings of Stowe's famous novel Uncle Tom's Cabin to map what she calls the "unfinished business of sentimentality." By Berlant's measure, sentimentalism's appeal to "true feeling" rightfully [End Page 30] invokes a political "desire to build pain alliances" (636). But in its relocation of collective identifications to a putatively universal capacity for suffering and trauma at the heart of the liberal individual, and by proposing two "affect-saturated institutions...


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pp. 29-56
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Archived 2004
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