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  • The Epistemology of the “Real”: A Response to Marianne Noble
  • Elizabeth Barnes (bio)

Reading Marianne Noble’s article, “The Ecstasies of Sentimental Wounding in Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” I am struck anew by the interest critics, myself included, have recently taken in the question of “real presence” and its relationship to sentimental epistemology. The attention signals for me an attempt to reinvigorate sentimental studies by reintroducing the issue of materiality—real bodies —into the discourse of the emotions. I say re-introducing because one of Noble’s arguments, and one I agree with, is that for nineteenth-century writers like Stowe, “the emotional self [is] an embodied self.” Expanding on this idea, Noble offers her “sentimental wound” as a metaphor for the double logic of the senses—the intersection of affective and physical feeling that forms the basis of true sympathy. Sentimental wounding refers to the pain that proves “real presence.” (One could even say that it fosters its own brand of Cartesian philosophy: ‘I hurt, therefore I am’). Noble’s article is indicative of a shift in thinking that has been taking place in American studies for several years now. It involves contesting the validity of certain dichotomies we’ve come to rely on but which have proven too limiting: e.g., the split between male/female, public/private, political/personal, reason/feeling, mind/body, romance genre/domestic genre. 1 A decade ago, the burgeoning field of sentimental studies (spearheaded by such critics as Nina Baym, Jane Tompkins, Ann Douglas, and Judith Fetterley) couldn’t help but contribute to these kinds of splits; after all, the recovery of popular women’s literature meant providing readers for the first time with the otherwise missing or neglected half of the dichotomy. 2 But as the canonical future of American women’s literature has become more secure, the focus of feminist criticism has changed to include investigations into the darker side of this reputedly genteel, moral and benign class of fiction. 3 The question is, where are we feminist critics headed in our exploration? And what’s at stake for us in our attempts to become more familiar with not only the political and the material, but with the violent and the perverse?

American feminist criticism has taken a new turn, and Noble’s work is a good example of it. Hers is an explicitly feminist project, one not only—nor [End Page 321] even mainly—about the sentimentally-constructed body, but about bodily responses to sentimental constructs, and about the extent to which these responses can be said to index a critique of an “abstract,” “masculine, symbolic epistemology.” In exploring this territory, Noble calls into question another, equally favored ideological pet of American studies: the idea that nineteenth-century culture is characterized by its devoted attachment to an ethos of “American individualism.” The argument that Noble makes for Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be made for other early works of American literature as well: that in the attempt to give “real presence” to her characters, writers like Stowe appealed to a “decentered,” “relational,” and “intersubjective” notion of personhood whereby selves are defined in relation to other selves with whom they identify. Stowe’s epistemology thus turns out to be, writes Noble, “not only anti-slavery, but also anti-individualistic and anti-patriarchal.” Pain, in particular, was to bring readers into “perfect [. . .] communication” with characters. As readers identified with a character’s loss (of a child, spouse, parent), their own “anguish of bereavement” served as a “universal emotion that cut through cultural difference.” Noble’s model of “intersubjective” identity privileges the body, but is not restricted by it. Many bodies become one in Stowe’s world, just as one body, through sympathetic identification, multiplies into many.

But whose body is it? I want to ask. Because the truth is, in the reading experience, nobody’s body really exists except the reader’s. Of course this is a fact (or is it?) that sentimental writers persistently resist. Take for instance Noble’s example of the most self-reflexive moment in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. At the opening of chapter 10, Senator Bird is explaining to his wife the political expediency of his voting...

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pp. 321-326
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