- Family, Kinship, and Sympathy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature
Cindy Weinstein's recent study expands the archive of sentimental texts to correct "the monolithic . . . account of sympathy" that she believes dominates critical discourse (3). Arguing that scholars still do not consider popular sentimental texts seriously, she examines novels by Caroline Lee Hentz, Mary Jane Holmes, Mary Hayden Green Pike, and Susan Warner alongside Herman Melville's Pierre and Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson. In her readings of these texts, Weinstein discovers that biological families are fragile and relatives are often unrecognizable or in frighteningly short supply. This observation leads to her central assertion: Sentimentalism validates a family based on affection rather than blood. Weinstein then redefines the prototypical sentimental plot, showing how it begins with "the breaking apart of the biological family" and follows the heroine into "a world of strangers who then become the means through which [she] establishes a new set of family relations based on . . . contract rather than consanguinity" (105).
The first chapter traces this plot across various texts, but her most sustained discussion occurs in chapter two, in which she places The Lamplighter against the backdrop of nascent adoption laws. The multitude of benevolent people who adopt Gertie, Weinstein contends, shows how family ties are elastic and transferable. Because a proliferation of affectionate bonds creates competing obligations, Gertie uses "judicious sympathy"—Weinstein's term for the ability to prioritize others' claims on one's sympathy—to "produce a family economy where one person's gain is not another person's loss" (47). Weinstein's careful reading stresses the novel's reflection of the cultural shift toward a contractual model of the family.
Weinstein, in chapter three, broadens the sentimental archive to reveal sympathy's "disparate contexts" (5). She compares Fanny Kemble's Journal on a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839 to Hentz's The Planter's Northern Bride to underscore that "'feeling right' [can] produce drastically different political allegiances" (67). Kemble persistently attempts to distinguish her text from proslavery rhetoric, Weinstein explains, which uses "linguistic sleights of hand . . . [to] muffle the . . . differences between being enslaved and being free" (72). Hentz employs such linguistic tricks by using the flawed family trope—a trope identified earlier in Weinstein's study—to insinuate that children are not always happiest with their birth parents. In Hentz's text, the destruction of slave families is not tragic, but ameliorative, which, as Weinstein points out, "could not be more different from Stowe" (77).
In chapter four, Weinstein again investigates sympathy's contexts by examining two texts that follow characters into and back out of slavery: [End Page 94] Pike's Ida May and Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave. Rejecting the view that sympathy inevitably leads to appropriation, Weinstein emphasizes Pike's depiction of slavery as a de-humanizing and a de-mothering system that forecloses affection. In Weinstein's view, sentimental novels intersect with slave narratives in their preoccupation with constructing a new family. Unlike most sentimental novels, however, slave narratives depict the impossibility of practicing judicious sympathy in a system that forbids contract and adoption, as well as choice and affection. Weinstein extends this observation to Warner's The Wide, Wide World in chapter five, arguing that Ellen resembles a slave in her inability to commit herself to more than one family at a time. Although Warner presents another look at the imperiled biological family, she seriously undermines a contractual model of the family by refusing to allow Ellen to choose the objects of her affection. In chapter six, Weinstein demonstrates how Melville's Pierre similarly begins with the annihilation of the family and, like The Wide, Wide World, portrays contract as "a fable of self-possession that leads to self- destruction" (10). In her afterword on Pudd'nhead Wilson, Weinstein astutely connects "Roxy's profoundly desperate tale of maternal strength, impotence, and defeat" with other texts in her study that depict the impossibility of sympathy within slavery (185).
Weinstein's laudable expansion of the archive opens the question of whether the...