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Reviewed by:
  • Sentimental Bodies: Sex, Gender, and Citizenship in the Early Republic
  • Elizabeth Barnes
Sentimental Bodies: Sex, Gender, and Citizenship in the Early Republic. By Bruce Burgett. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press. 1998. 213 pp. $39.50.

Bruce Burgett’s original, meticulously rendered, erudite study explores the relations among sentiment, embodiment, and citizenship in the postrevolutionary United States. In his own words, Sentimental Bodies “traces the history of the modern body to a sentimental ideology that, by naturalizing the publicly mediated taxonomies through recourse to the immediacy of ‘feeling,’ masks the political power located at the ‘heart’ of both the body and the body politic.” Burgett tackles subjects as provocative and diverse as the semiotics of Washington’s body in his “Farewell Address,” male masochism in Charles [End Page 587] Brockden Brown’s Clara Howard, the feminist potential of “loose letters” in epistolary fiction like Hannah Foster’s The Coquette, and the impact of midcentury obscenity laws on antebellum readers’ understanding of Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Throughout Sentimental Bodies, Burgett confronts both postrevolutionary and contemporary preconceptions regarding the definitions of personal, civic, and political life as well as the key terms that inform Americans’ recognition of these spheres: “democracy, liberalism, and republicanism; sensation, sentiment, and sentimentality; body and mind; public and private; political and social; sex, gender and sexuality.” To a great extent, Burgett’s structuralist study is an effort to defamiliarize these terms, and to this end, he resists the temptation to offer his own definitions. Rather, he attempts to “locate these concepts within the texts and arguments out of which they emerge.” His quest brings nineteenth-century authors, politicians, and social reformers together with latter-twentieth-century social historians and literary critics, allowing him to investigate and critique the ways in which history has been, and is still being, written. This is an ambitious endeavor, and at every move Burgett demonstrates that he is up to the task. Ironically, however, it is Burgett’s very mastery of the material that may leave those less familiar with the historical context of his subjects somewhat at a loss. His arguments move quickly, and, combined with a philosophical opposition to defining terms, his readings can leave one alternately dazzled and slightly dizzy. Yet Sentimental Bodies is well worth the effort. It is one of the few books (perhaps the only one) to bring Habermasian theories and concerns together with an acute, demonstrable critical interest in sentiment and sentimental fiction. Unlike Michael Warner’s Letters of the Republic (which, along with The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, clearly informs Burgett’s work here), Sentimental Bodies makes sentimentality and its attempts to negotiate the public and private spheres central to its purpose. In doing so, the book dismantles yet another familiar, though largely unacknowledged, dichotomy present today–that between male literary critics writing on the social construction of the public sphere in the nineteenth century and female literary critics writing on the sentimental novel’s construction of the private. In focusing on the material consequences of sentimental strategies, Burgett participates in a new era of sentimental studies whose investigation into the epistemological theories of the Enlightenment shows the complicated ways in which nineteenth-century liberal bodies are imagined (in)to matter. Burgett’s is an important and welcome voice in that continuing dialogue.

Elizabeth Barnes
College of William and Mary

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pp. 587-588
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2005
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