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Sentimental Readers

The Rise, Fall, and Revival of a Disparaged Rhetoric

Faye Halpern

Publication Year: 2013

How could novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin change the hearts and minds of thousands of mid-nineteenth-century readers, yet make so many modern readers cringe at their over-the-top, tear-filled scenes? Sentimental Readers explains why sentimental rhetoric was so compelling to readers of that earlier era, why its popularity waned in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and why today it is generally characterized as overly emotional and artificial. But author Faye Halpern also does more: she demonstrates that this now despised rhetoric remains relevant to contemporary writing teachers and literary scholars.

Halpern examines these novels with a fresh eye by positioning sentimentality as a rhetorical strategy on the part of these novels’ (mostly) female authors, who used it to answer a question that plagued the male-dominated world of nineteenth-century American rhetoric and oratory: how could listeners be sure an eloquent speaker wasn’t unscrupulously persuading them of an untruth? The authors of sentimental novels managed to solve this problem even as the professional male rhetoricians and orators could not, because sentimental rhetoric, filled with tears and other physical cues of earnestness, ensured that an audience could trust the heroes and heroines of these novels. However, as a wider range of authors began wielding sentimental rhetoric later in the nineteenth century, readers found themselves less and less convinced by this strategy.

In her final discussion, Halpern steps beyond a purely historical analysis to interrogate contemporary rhetoric and reading practices among literature professors and their students, particularly first-year students new to the “close reading” method advocated and taught in most college English classrooms. Doing so allows her to investigate how sentimental novels are understood today by both groups and how these contemporary reading strategies compare to those of Americans more than a century ago. Clearly, sentimental novels still have something to teach us about how and why we read.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: The How of Sentimentality

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pp. xi-xxiv

In Alternative Alcott, a collection of lesser-known works by Louisa May Alcott, editor Elaine Showalter excises the marriage that occupies the last part of Work: A Story of Experience. In the original version, published in 1873, the protagonist, Christie Devon, marries a good Quaker man after having taken a series of more and...

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1. Edward Tyrrel Channing and the Matter of Disingenuous Eloquence

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pp. 1-30

This chapter examines a problem that beset the professional male orators and rhetoricians of nineteenth-century America. It explains why this problem would remain insoluble for them despite their great exertions to solve it. It is likely that most contemporary readers will not have a great deal of sympathy for the professional conundrum...

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2. Why We Should Trust Harriet Beecher Stowe

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pp. 31-64

Edward Tyrrel Channing faced the bind that all professional male rhetoricians and orators faced in nineteenth-century America. He could endorse the natural orator and make rhetorical training unnecessary. Or he could defend rhetorical training and ensure that most members of the audience would have no way of telling...

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3. The Art of Character in Louisa May Alcott’s Work

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pp. 65-82

The Minister’s Wooing charts the triumph of the sentimental orator; Henry Ward Beecher embodies his downfall. But Louisa May Alcott has already foretold his defeat. Only a decade and a half separates The Minister’s Wooing from the “scandal summer” of 1874, when the alleged affair of Henry Ward Beecher with one of his parishioners...

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4. Henry Ward Beecher and the Fall of the Sentimental Orator

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pp. 83-110

Christie is a transitional figure on the way toward Henry Ward Beecher, whom Sinclair Lewis called “a combination of St. Augustine, Barnum, and John Barrymore” (qtd. in Hibben viii).1 From 1847 until 1887, the year of his death, Henry Ward Beecher was the wildly popular minister of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn (he was...

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5. In Defense of Reading Badly

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pp. 111-136

The first four chapters of this book have created a picture of the sentimental reader. How was she meant to read? What was she meant to believe? What happens when she ceases to read a certain way and believe certain things? By establishing the character of this nineteenth-century reader, I believe that we might better understand...

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6. The Problem with Being a Good Reader of Sentimental Rhetoric

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pp. 137-160

Although scholars traditionally have begun their studies of the nineteenth-century “scribbling women” with a personal anecdote, I have saved mine to the end. When I was finishing graduate school and showed a draft of my dissertation on Harriet Beecher Stowe and Louisa May Alcott to a fellow graduate student, she fastened on the...


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pp. 161-164


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pp. 165-196

Works Cited

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pp. 197-210


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pp. 211-215

E-ISBN-13: 9781609382100
E-ISBN-10: 1609382102
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609381868
Print-ISBN-10: 1609381866

Page Count: 239
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: paper