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Twentieth-Century Sentimentalism

Narrative Appropriation in American Literature

by Jennifer A. Williamson

Publication Year: 2013

Today’s critical establishment assumes that sentimentalism is an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary mode that all but disappeared by the twentieth century. In this book, Jennifer Williamson argues that sentimentalism is alive and well in the modern era. By examining working-class literature that adopts the rhetoric of “feeling right” in order to promote a proletarian or humanist ideology as well as neo-slave narratives that wrestle with the legacy of slavery and cultural definitions of African American families, she explores the ways contemporary authors engage with familiar sentimental clichés and ideals.Williamson covers new ground by examining authors who are not generally read for their sentimental narrative practices, considering the proletarian novels of Grace Lumpkin, Josephine Johnson, and John Steinbeck alongside neo-slave narratives written by Margaret Walker, Octavia Butler, and Toni Morrison. Through careful close readings, Williamson argues that the appropriation of sentimental modes enables both sympathetic thought and systemic action in the proletarian and neo-slave novels under discussion. She contrasts appropriations that facilitate such cultural work with those that do not, including Kathryn Stockett’s novel and film The Help. The book outlines how sentimentalism remains a viable and important means of promoting social justice while simultaneously recognizing and exploring how sentimentality can further white privilege.Sentimentalism is not only alive in the twentieth century. It is a flourishing rhetorical practice among a range of twentieth-century authors who use sentimental tactics in order to appeal to their readers about a range of social justice issues. This book demonstrates that at stake in their appeals is who is inside and outside of the American family and nation.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Series: The American Literatures Initiative

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 1-6


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pp. 7-8

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pp. ix-xii

I am deeply grateful to many people for supporting me in the process of completing this book. I would like to thank my advisors, friends, and colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University for talking through this material and offering critical support. I hope they can see their impact on this project: William L. Andrews, Philip...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-22

Contemporary beliefs about sentimentalism or ?the sentimental? are that sentimentalism is an outdated mode of appealing to readers and to the general public. This opinion is largely influenced by the cultural sway of twentieth-century modernism, which asserted that sentimentalism portrays emotion that lacks reality or depth, falling flat in its attempts ...

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2. Grace Lumpkin’s To Make My Bread: Standing Together, Side by Side

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pp. 23-58

For so long each had been alone with his family striving after enough food to keep from starving. . . . Now they were going to stand together, side by Published in 1932, inspired by the events of the 1929 textile mill strikes in Gastonia, North Carolina,1 Grace Lumpkin?s To Make My Bread was praised by reviewers as both a ?beautiful and sincere novel? and ?very ...

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3. Josephine Johnson’s Now in November: Not Plough-Shares but People

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pp. 59-86

Josephine Johnson was just twenty-four years old when she submitted the manuscript of Now in November to her editor, Clifton Fadiman at Simon and Schuster, in the summer of 1934. It was her first novel, and Johnson was still a student at Washington University in St. Louis. She had been an aspiring writer since her childhood in Kirkwood, Mis-...

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4. Caretaking, Domesticity, and Gender in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: “His Home Is Not the Land”

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pp. 87-111

In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one John Steinbeck is arguably the best-known proletarian author of the twentieth century. The 1962 Nobel laureate?s novels about the Depression era have remained a cultural touchstone for generations of readers, and ...

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5. Margaret Walker’s Jubilee: “Forged in a Crucible of Suffering”

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pp. 112-126

When Jubilee was first published in 1966, it was hailed as a welcome addition to the Civil War novel genre. Winner of the Houghton Mif-flin Literary Fellowship Award, it was described on its dust jacket as ?inevitably being called the Negro Gone with the Wind,? a comparison that would today be troubling. It not only invited Margaret Mitch-...

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6. Octavia Butler’s Kindred: “My Face Too Was Wet with Tears”

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pp. 127-146

Octavia Butler is arguably best known for her novel Kindred, published in 1979. She was the first African American woman to make a name for herself writing science fiction and remains one of the few African American writers?along with Samuel R. Delany?to have achieved suc-cess in the field. After developing a love of reading and an interest in sci-...

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7. Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “Feeling How It Must Have Felt to Her Mother”

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pp. 147-185

I was big, Paul D, and deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my children could get in between . . . there wasn?t nobody in the world I In a scathing 1987 review of Beloved, Stanley Crouch angrily accuses Toni Morrison of writing melodramatic sentimental fiction that is ?designed to placate sentimental feminist ideology,? making sure that ?the vision ...

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8. Conclusion

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pp. 186-202

The selection of writers offered here demonstrates that together in a way they cannot alone sentimentalism continues to be an effec-tive means by which contemporary texts argue for social change and instruct readers to identify and sympathize with individuals generally configured as Others. It also forces today?s reader to wrestle with a ...


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pp. 203-212

Works Cited

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pp. 213-226


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pp. 227-232

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About the Author

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p. 233-233

Jennifer A. Williamson is a gender specialist at a Washington D.C. area global development organization, and a former instructor of English and Women?s Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has previously taught at the University of Maryland?College Park. She is the author of numerous articles and the editor of The Sentimental Mode: ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780813562995
E-ISBN-10: 0813562996
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813562988
Print-ISBN-10: 0813562988

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: The American Literatures Initiative