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American Literary History 14.2 (2002) 227-254

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A Few Words about Dubuque:
Modernism, Sentimentalism, and the Blasé

Jessica Burstein

T. S. Eliot writes books for me.
King Farouk's on tenterhooks for me.
Sherman Billingsley even cooks for me.

Eartha Kitt, "Monotonous"

The sentimental appears to be a sticky subject, both in form and in function. Its capaciousness plagued Lady Bradshaigh, who complained to Samuel Richardson, "Every thing clever and agreeable is comprehended in that word; but I am convinced a wrong interpretation is given, because it is impossible every thing clever and agreeable can be so common as this word" (Brissenden 17). A more recent and less skeptical critical pronouncement avers that "the sentimental imagination at its core manifests an irresistible impulse toward human connection; sentimentalism in its pure essence envisions—indeed desires—the self in relation" (Dobson 170). Virtually all modern critics engaging the subject share the premise that the sentimental is fundamentally connective. These forms of communion involve descriptions of a responsive dynamic that binds a sentimental text to the bodily presence of its reader; the relation between an author and her readers (often taking the form of a text's political efficacy); a community of readers produced by the circulation of a sentimental text; the workings of sentimental identification within the text; or the ideology of the sentimental at the level of cultural form, producing, it is maintained, connectedness or sociality in its loosest form. 1 At the limit case of its adhesive powers is the nineteenth-century Americanist Lori Merish's argument that "the 'subject of sentiment' does not [End Page 227] preexist but is constituted through the identificatory exchanges of sentimental narrative" (23). Here the sentimental becomes a Möbius strip made from flypaper, producing itself through the imagination of connection.

Modernist critics, too, converge in evaluating the sentimental as exemplary in its relationship to communitarian values or connectedness. For instance, Suzanne Clark concludes that the sentimental works by binding individuals into groups: "[T]he sentimental by its excess of both feeling and conventionality displaces the power of desire from a never-attainable object to discourse as the object of sociability" (41). The ne plus ultra of the group in question for modernist critics is women (for critics in other fields, the sentimental can invoke other disenfranchised groups): "[T]he sentimental has functioned . . . to provide a model of mother-daughter and woman-woman relations which might help assuage the isolation and vulnerability of women produced by history" (Clark 38).

Perhaps as a result of the connection between the sentimental and gender, sentimentalism appears most often for modernist critics as needing rescue or advocacy. 2 At work is the desire to supplement, as the editor of The Gender of Modernism (1990) puts it, "a small set of white male modernists and a limited number of texts and genres" rather than to risk further "[pause] upon a conservative, anxious, male strain of modernism" (Scott 16). The recovery of the sentimental, we may extrapolate, is effected in order to bring to light something repressed ("the position against the sentimental still operates almost like an unconscious in critical writing" [Clark 5]), consonant with the sense that the received form of modernism, understood as inherited from writers like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot and accepted by subsequent generations of critics, hardened itself against the intimacy represented by sentimentalism.

Not only is this premise incorrect, the methods are misguided and lead to misunderstanding both the artists and the period. If the choice is to be sentimental versus unsentimental, as it was presented in a 1999 MLA panel, 3 or "the forgotten and silenced makers of modernism" (the dedication of The Gender of Modernism) versus the noisy and ubiquitous, the options are at once inadequate and misleading. Understanding sentimentalism in modernism entails not simply registering the forgotten and the silenced but recognizing that we've misunderstood the writers we think we already know. It's less useful to think of modernism as refusing sentimentalism, or, in a revisionist account, embracing it, than to understand modernism as privileging...


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