- The Providence of Class: Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Political Economy, and Sentimental Fiction in the 1830s
When does class happen in US literature? Right away, assuming that late eighteenth-century US fiction already articulates middle-class values.1 Yet if by class, we mean structural economic inequality generated by capitalism as well as working-class opposition to this inequality, the implication of a number of major monographs is that class does not make its presence felt in US literature until the 1840s.2 I propose here that class should be crucial to our understanding of the US novel in the 1830s, but also that sentimental fiction in the 1830s—unlike better-known sentimental fiction of the 1850s—refuses to deny what we can call the reality of class in the US. If 1850s sentimental novels posit locations and persons “outside class” (Lang 17), in Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s The Poor Rich Man, and the Rich Poor Man (1836) and Live and Let Live (1837), it is in fact desirable for Americans to remain inside class. These once very popular though now largely overlooked novels challenge the equation of Northern antebellum sentimental fiction with a liberal democratic disavowal of permanent class inequality.3 Here, the US both is and ought always to be marked by the division of “rich” and “poor”—by fundamental economic inequality among whites.
The narrator of The Poor Rich Man observes that the “great subject of inequality of condition . . . puzzles the philosopher, and [End Page 199] sometimes disturbs the Christian” (39). Sedgwick solves this puzzle by insisting “Providence” has made “this inequality the necessary result of the human condition” and that “the true agrarian principle” is “to be found in the voluntary exercise of those virtues that produce an interchange of benevolent offices” (39). “If there were a perfect community of goods,” Sedgwick asks, “where would be the opportunity for the exercise of the virtues, of justice, and mercy, humility, fidelity, and gratitude?” (39). Casting economic inequality as a providential logic, Sedgwick’s novels represent economic inequality as the precondition of ethical feeling and action. Her novels tap the “rich” and “poor” to “exercise” what are construed as different but equally essential “virtues”: “justice, and mercy” are the province of the “rich”; “humility, fidelity, and gratitude,” the province of the “poor.” The “voluntary exercise” of Christian “virtues” arising from within economic inequality, Sedgwick maintains, entails a kind of reciprocal exchange (“interchange of benevolent offices”) that quashes the need for economic equality.
This moment exemplifies the didactic, polemical flavor of Sedgwick’s short 1830s novels. It also indicates Sedgwick’s participation in a discourse of class that extends back at least as far as John Winthrop’s 1630 A Model of Christian Charity: “God Almighty in His most holy and wise providence,” Winthrop begins, “hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in subjection” (79).
Yet Sedgwick’s novels were very much of their moment, self-conscious responses to the first wave of socialist politics in the US. “Agrarian principle” might call to mind the Jeffersonian ideal of a yeoman republic, but “agrarianism” in this era denoted “utopian socialist solution[s]” (Lazerow 181). Sedgwick’s use of the term invokes projects like New Harmony, the Owenite community in southern Indiana, and texts like Thomas Skidmore’s 1829 The Rights of Man to Property, which called for the radical redistribution of land. In the 1820s and 1830s, a number of radicals and working-class activists buttressed their claims by declaring that Christianity necessitates the abolition of economic inequality, but Sedgwick instead holds Christianity to be a matter of individual actions within economic inequality. Sedgwick will not countenance the agrarian principle, because for her economic inequality benefits the US ethically and spiritually.
Of course, we have robust accounts of how antebellum sentimentalism may have legitimated capitalism. Gillian Brown and Lori Merish have explored the intricate relationships between literary sentimentalism and what C. B. Macpherson famously dubbed “possessive individualism.”4 But while Brown and Merish regard [End Page 200] sentimental fiction as a middle-class cultural form...