- Men of Feeling in Eighteenth-Century Literature: Touching Fiction by Alex Wetmore
Eighteenth-century printed texts are notoriously self-aware about the circumstances of their production and dissemination. The relationship between self-reflexivity and literary form has been explored by such figures as Christina Lupton, Deidre Lynch, Christopher Flint, and Tom Keymer, among others. Alex Wetmore argues for the congruity between the printed bodies of sentimental books and the mechanized men of feeling presented within their pages. Sentimentalism’s stress on embodied emotive expression is crucially related to the eighteenth century’s [End Page 547] preoccupation with the physicality of the book; print’s palpability becomes crucial to its capacity to elicit emotion. The subtitle, Touching Fiction, refers to how sentimental fictions deploy tactility in order to become emotionally and allegorically “touching.” The cover illustration, an anonymous etching with engraving titled “High life at noon” (1769), portrays a man touching a woman’s breast amidst a scene of literary and appetitive consumption. It suggests another, more sexual connotation of “touching fiction.” Yet Wetmore’s interest is not so much in the sexual practices of the men of feeling, but in the way feeling is inscribed on sensible bodies, and what it means to touch, and be touched by, sentimental fiction. What I found especially interesting was the study of sentimentalism’s “touching” of bodies via book-like bodies and bodies in books. This speaks to one of the most fascinating aspects of eighteenth-century writing: its playful coalescence of signifying flesh and printed paper.
Sentimental novels by Henry Brooke, Laurence Sterne, Tobias Smollett, and Henry Mackenzie are the focus of Men of Feeling. Wetmore introduces a useful term, “corporeal defamiliarization,” to denote how sentimental novels denaturalize their status as touchable book-objects. The phrase also encompasses sentimentalism’s preoccupation with bodies of texts, and bodies in texts. Wetmore compellingly argues that sentimental self-consciousness can be understood to have the matter of the book and the body at its fraught center. Sentimental self-reflexivity, therefore, is not the metafictional, proto-postmodern irony that our moment in history might tempt us to identify it as being.
The book is structured around three lengthy chapters, each with a title composed of two competing, interrelating terms. In the first of these sections, “Body/Language,” Wetmore explores the relationship between sentimental self-reflexivity and eighteenth-century theories of language. Though sentimental fiction, as is often noted, draws attention to the limitations of writing and speech in favor of an embodied articulation of emotion, it is far from naïve in its treatment of bodily expression. It remains alert to the way bodily signs mirror lexical and linguistic structures. Wetmore’s argument is convincing, particularly when considering how in Tristram Shandy the language of the body is as fraught, and as susceptible to failure and miscommunication, as the words that the characters speak and write. Arguing from a different perspective in “Tristram Shandy and the Wound of Language” (1995), Ross King contends that the impotent, ailing male bodies in the novel are constitutive to the failure of language that pervades the book. In a narrative that entangles literary expression with sexual prowess, linguistic failure and sexual impotence become inextricable. Sentimental fiction might privilege embodied expression, but it is as skeptical about interpreting the body as it is about reading the page.
In the subsequent section, “Feeling/Machines,” Wetmore argues that the automaton is central to sentimental fiction’s self-awareness. The feeling body of the sentimental man, marked by print and experience, becomes analogous to the mechanically reproduced book. Wetmore notes how ideal, sentimental, masculine virtue is repeatedly characterized as involving mechanized, automatic affective responses.
The following section, “Public/Health,” investigates relationships between sentimental novels’ preoccupation with their own physicality, and books of “physick.” Wetmore suggests that sentimental fiction’s corporeal defamiliarization works in tandem with the genre’s palliative goal of expanding and extending nervous sensibilities. Following Henry Fielding in The Author’s Farce (1730), Wetmore [End Page 548] plays on the suggestive congruities between hacks and quacks. Sentimentalism’s fraught...