- Structures of Feeling
Did sentiment ever go out of style? Certainly, a classic account of literary history made it seem so. According to this once prevailing view, the discourse of sentiment first appeared in the eighteenth century, emerging in the philosophical writing of Lord Shaftesbury and Adam Smith and in the novels of Samuel Richardson, Laurence Sterne, and Henry MacKenzie. Although gently mocked in Jane Austen, its range only expanded alongside the nineteenth-century growth of the novel, reaching the apogee of its influence in the Victorian era, when, especially in the US, it became the province of women writers and a prime vehicle of domestic ideology. By the later third of the nineteenth century, however, the decadence of sentiment finally became too much to ignore and first the realists and then their heirs among the modernists came forth to vilify and dispatch it. As Werner Berthoff explained in his once canonical history The Ferment of Realism (1981), the innovative writing of the Gilded Age and of the Progressive Era sprang “out of professional distaste for a polite literature that was rotten ripe with idealizing sentiment and genteel affectation” (4).
Or so it seemed to the generation of modernist critics who laid the foundations for the postwar discipline of English. For several decades now, however, their convictions have been losing credibility. The challenges came especially from feminist scholarship, pioneered by Jane Tompkins, and carried forward by critics and literary historians like Joan Hedrick, Lora Romero, and Karen Sánchez-Eppler. These critics illuminated the depth and interest of nineteenth-century sentimental fiction while also revealing the glib condescension, and the defense of gender hierarchy—the “melodramas of beset manhood,” as Nina Baym memorably put it—underlying the dismissal of sentimental fiction. Revisionist accounts of realism and modernism meanwhile only emphasized the doubtfulness of the antisentimentalists’ [End Page 321] motives. As critics like Alfred Habegger and Suzanne Clark pointed out, the realists and modernists who paraded their distaste for sentimentality were often inspired not only by anxiety about gender difference but also—as Berthoff’s phrasing implied—by an inextricable desire to shore up their shaky professional authority.
Complementing such challenges to the antisentimental narrative was another trend in literary scholarship, in which the sources and implications of the sentimental tradition were themselves shown to be far more complex than had been realized. Attending to the philosophical developments, and to the social transformations, that gave rise to the ideas of sentiment and sensibility, scholars like G. J. Barker-Benfield, Michael Bell, June Howard, James Chandler, and David Marshall showed, in various ways, the theoretical complexity implicit in the sentimental tradition and its deep imbrication in the conditions of modernity. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, contemporary literary scholarship continues to rediscover, in any number of its recent movements—the “turn to affect,” the study of “public feeling,” the move to “surface reading,” the “ethical turn”—the terrain of sensibility and emotion from which modernist critics once imagined they had departed.1
Despite this extraordinary wealth of scholarship, the old antisentimental narrative survives, not least as an antagonist against whom scholars and critics can continue to define their ambitions. Both Aaron Ritzenberg and Jennifer A. Williamson cast themselves as extending the revisionist project to rescue sentimental fiction from critical contempt. Both argue that the sentimental tradition is richer, more diverse, and more lasting in influence than we’ve realized, and both defend its artistic accomplishments and political value against what Ritzenberg describes as a still prevailing “dark view of sentimentalism”—of sentimentality as a false, manipulative, and enervating strategy for emphasizing personal sorrows over public causes (122). Each produces an original and provocative argument, often highly illuminating even as it fails to resolve the enduring question of why sentiment seems such a persistent yet problematic feature of modern literary expression.
Of the two works, Williamson’s Twentieth-Century Sentimentalism: Narrative Appropriations in American Literature (2014) develops along more familiar lines. Drawing widely from the scholarship of the past several decades, her study...