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Self-Consciousness and Sentimental Fiction

From: New England Review
Volume 33, Number 4, 2013
pp. 180-184 | 10.1353/ner.2013.0014

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One of Transcendental philosophy’s effects was (as Emerson put it so well) to make the mind aware of itself. In fiction this meant attention to the “deeper psychology” that Henry James appreciated in Hawthorne. An essay in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, “Novels: Their Meaning and Mission” (1854), noted that because “the domain of the novel ranges over the entire field of the real and the ideal,” it “touches every point of man’s consciousness.” In the 1850s, such interest in consciousness, particularly self-consciousness—the relation of the “me” to the “Not-Me” that Emerson had written about in his seminal Nature (1836)—began to inform fiction in a variety of ways.

As sentimental novelists replaced piety with moralism, other novelists, influenced by their interest in the “transcendent,” moved toward a faith based in internalized religious experience. Neither adherence toward a faith of abstract doctrine nor good works satisfied their characters’ spiritual hunger, and thus they imagined a close relationship to God and particularly to Christ. In this private space, one discovered the true self. But because of the way such faith was conceived and realized, it was not easily accessible to others and could encourage solipsism.

The Eternal Bachelor

Donald G. Mitchell’s pseudonymously issued Reveries of a Bachelor; or, A Book of the Heart (1850) was the most popular example of the new self-consciousness of American fiction, even though in some ways it still epitomized the culture of sentiment in its portrayal of a bachelor yearning for the domestic life. Mitchell’s novel consisted of extended “reveries” that together paint a portrait of a young, aimless bachelor, the author and Mitchell’s alter ego, Ik Marvel (from two of Mitchell’s favorite English authors, Izaac Walton and Andrew Marvell). Within a year of its publication, Reveries had sold fourteen thousand copies, and each year thereafter it enjoyed a “steady and widely extended circulation.” It was quickly translated into French and German and into many more languages later in the nineteenth century.

Mitchell never expected such success and later lamented that for the rest of his life, no matter what else he wrote, he would always be the dreamy bachelor Ik Marvel. Born in 1822, Mitchell was the son of a rural Connecticut minister who died when Mitchell was eight. In the following decade, he lost his mother and several siblings to tuberculosis, which he also contracted but survived. After his father’s death Mitchell was placed in a boarding school in Ellington, Connecticut, and thus knew little of family life; that may explain his obsession with it that marks his immersion in the sentimental. In 1837, the year of the country’s first major depression, he entered Yale College, where several relatives had matriculated and where he flourished, particularly enjoying his work on The Yale Literary Magazine. He graduated as valedictorian of his class and, to satisfy his relatives’ wish that he soon find a profession, chose to read the law, even though his heart was not in it.

Through the good offices of a family friend, in 1844 Mitchell went to Liverpool as secretary to the U.S. consul in that city. The damp climate did not help his delicate lungs, and he spent much time wandering through France and Italy, seeking drier air and gathering material for a series of travel sketches. On his return to the United States, Mitchell placed some of these in the American Whig Review. Using the name Ik Marvel for the first time, he wrote more satiric sketches about Washington, D.C., where he had spent two months, for the New York Courier and Enquirer. Hearing of the democratic revolutions in Europe, Mitchell returned and witnessed some of the violent events in Paris in 1848. Back in America, he published The Battle Summer (1849), based on his firsthand observations of the upheavals.

In 1849 Mitchell published “A Bachelor’s Reverie” in the Southern Literary Messenger. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine reprinted it a few months later, to considerable praise. Mitchell then proposed a volume of such “daydreams” to Charles Scribner, who published Reveries of a Bachelor in late 1850. “Ik Marvel” was soon the talk of...



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