- Sentimentalism’s Nation: Maria J. McIntosh and the Antebellum Contexts of “Southern” Fiction
In March 1853, New York publishing house D. Appleton & Company ran an advertisement for a new sentimental novel, The Lofty and the Lowly: Or, Good in All and None All-Good by Maria J. McIntosh. The advertisement claims that “an eighth edition having been called for so soon after [the book’s] publication sufficiently attests its great merits” and quotes positive reviews from nineteen newspapers printed in places as diverse as Boston, Charleston, Cincinnati, Buffalo, New Bedford, and Ontario (Figure 1). The Lofty and the Lowly, according to these geographically varied sources, is “candid,” “admirable,” and “purely American.” Indeed, claims the Utica Gazette, McIntosh is “in the front rank of American novelists.”
The effusive praise of these reviews and the widespread recognition of McIntosh they demonstrate might surprise modern readers. Critics might wonder that such a popular antebellum author remains relatively unknown today; the advertisement flags McIntosh’s peculiar absence from a growing canon of recovered women authors. But synthesizing The Lofty and the Lowly’s content with the source of its acclaim has ramifications beyond McIntosh’s personal reputation. For this laudatory advertisement ran in the famously antislavery National Era—despite the fact that The Lofty and the Lowly was a proslavery rebuttal to Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by a Southern-born author (Figure 2). To the extent that this advertisement’s placement startles modern readers—particularly those who remember that The National Era was not only an antislavery newspaper, but also the original home of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the very novel McIntosh’s story decries—it points towards an important anachronism in modern reading practices. Scholarly approaches to antebellum sentimentalism, as I will discuss, are typically guided by a set of ideological [End Page 203]
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and geographical binaries—antislavery and proslavery, Northern and Southern—that are revealed, in the light of this advertisement, to function differently now than they did in their own era. The question this seemingly out-of-place advertisement raises is: how does accounting for an antislavery, Northern audience’s admiration for a proslavery, Southern, yet “purely American” author reconfigure our sense of those binaries?
This essay argues that McIntosh’s work, like its reception, points to a disconnect between contemporary and mid-nineteenth-century ideas about “purely American” texts, and compels a more sustained examination of how Southern-affiliated and proslavery texts contributed to sentimentalism’s nationalizing work in the mid-century moment. Recent scholarship has emphasized the need to understand the nation as an always dynamic, contingent form.1 But how that dynamism pertains to the genealogy of sentimental fiction—and thus, to the mid-century literary marketplace in which sentimentalism was ascendant—remains under-examined. Despite ongoing efforts to emphasize sentimentalism’s range and complexity, many generalized studies of nineteenth-century U.S. literary culture tend to draw their ideas of sentimentalism from a quite narrow range of texts, typically emphasizing the genre’s northern and antislavery forms.2 Novels deploying the sentimental form to offer alternate visions of national sentiments, particularly vis-à-vis slavery, are often labeled as “anti-Uncle Tom fiction,” “plantation fiction,” or “Southern fiction”—terms that have served, in various ways, to keep texts like The Lofty and the Lowly out of the dominant narrative of “American” sentimental fiction. Instead, this essay aims to recover both McIntosh’s work and, through McIntosh, a literary context in which a proslavery, southern-affiliated text might be read as a central part of U.S. literary nationalism.
As the advertisement praising McIntosh’s patriotism demonstrates, in the 1850s “Southern” sentimental novels like The Lofty and the Lowly could be read as a vital and fully American part of an often tense conversation about slavery and national identity. Today, however, the marker “Southern” seems to carry a postbellum connotation of isolationism, seccessionism, and anti-Americanism. Assuming that “Southern” texts were addressed exclusively to a Southern audience—rather than considering the many ways in which Southern perspectives and...