- Twentieth-Anniversary Reflections on The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America edited by Shirley Samuels
In perhaps the pithiest of several oft-quoted lines from the introduction to The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America, Shirley Samuels writes: “Sentimentality is literally at the heart of nineteenth-century American culture” (4). When this line appeared in print in 1992, many read it as hyperbolic. And I have evidence for that assertion. I used a paraphrase of Samuels’s statement in several job interviews the following year; doing so resulted in many blank stares and no job offers.
The reasons for these responses have to do with the history and formation of the field of literary and historical studies of the United States. Sentimentality had long been at best a minor subtopic in study of the nineteenth century; [End Page 122] more frequently, it was a term of opprobrium that was used to dismiss both those writers to whom the word could be attached and those scholars who tried to take the concept, the practice, and the cultural forms around it seriously. Even as late as 1985, Jane Tompkins had had to couch her arguments about “sentimental power” almost apologetically, famously narrating her way out of the basement of Isabella Beecher Hooker’s house toward the groundbreaking claim that the words “monumental” and “dazzling” could and should be applied to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work (122, 125).
But here was Samuels introducing a collection of fifteen rigorous, historically grounded, theoretically informed essays, all of which took for granted the centrality of sentimentality to nineteenth-century US culture. Together they demonstrated that sentimentality was a keyword necessary to an understanding of the culture. Beyond illuminating various forms of popular fiction that bore the epithet “sentimental,” they provided insight into an extraordinarily wide range of cultural forms, including photography of children at schools for American Indian and African American students, a woman’s murder trial, women’s magazines, the intersecting political discourses of abolitionism and feminism, the cultural meaning of gambling, neoclassical sculpture, slave narratives, the cult of the Vanishing American exemplified by The Last of the Mohicans, and popular journalism. Even the essays treating sentimental fiction by women such as Lydia Maria Child, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Catherine Maria Sedgwick located their writings at the center of the culture, rather than marking them as subcultural, marginal, or merely “popular.”
To use a term that was already old when The Culture of Sentiment appeared, the volume marked a paradigm shift toward a new understanding of US culture that we still carry with us today. Because of this book and others that followed, an interpretation of a cultural or historical object from the nineteenth century is impoverished, even damaged, if it lacks an understanding of its relation to sentimentalism. The shift was one of several that can be associated with the New Historicism ascendant at the time, which transformed our understanding of the relationship between culture and what might previously have been seen as historical background; now culture and history were to be read as thoroughly imbricated discourses.
For twenty years now, sentimentality has continued to be among the most powerful of the discourses identified and analyzed in that New Historicist moment. The individual essays in The Culture of Sentiment have been extraordinarily generative; all are widely cited, and all became part of major research projects by their authors. Even more broadly, the volume as a whole both inspired new research and constellated existing research around it. In lieu of an inevitably incomplete list of such scholarship, an anecdote may suffice. [End Page 123] Sometime in the mid-to late 1990s, I was having drinks with four or five other Americanist scholars at a conference. In the course of our conversation we realized that each us was working on a book with the word “sentiment” or “sentimental” in the title. As we talked, we were able to name several other projects using the term that...