- The Altar at Home: Sentimental Literature and Nineteenth-Century American Religion by Claudia Stokes
Pop quiz: Who was the most “influential, famous, and successful sentimental woman writer”? If you’re like me, you probably thought first of Harriet Beecher Stowe. After reading Claudia Stokes’s The Altar at Home, you might agree with Stokes that sentimentalism’s apotheosis is none other than Mary Baker Eddy. In fact, as Stokes convincingly argues, we’d do well to think of Eddy and her work as one of as one of the primary vehicles through which sentimentalism has endured and continued to influence US religious, literary, and popular cultures.
Stokes is able to make this kind of claim (and a few others that aren’t as catchy, but are just as compelling) because she begins by serving up a corrective to the lack of theological precision that has plagued our engagements with sentimental literature. For too long we’ve assumed that sentimental piety is, by and large, denominationally neutral and unaffected by doctrinal difference; Stokes shows us just how much we’ve missed because of this assumption.
Stokes begins by examining the ways scholars are hamstrung by their own vocabularies when discussing the religious influences that shape sentimental literature. Stokes argues that examining sentimentalism alongside the “enduring vestiges of Calvinist theology” (21) is a critical tendency that has hampered our literary histories in two ways: we’ve failed to acknowledge the panoply of religious influences that fed sentimentalism, and we’ve overlooked the impact sentimentalism has on various American religious cultures. The corrective Stokes applies is simple: bring “greater denominational specificity to our understanding of the religious contents of sentimental literature” (2). Stokes finds [End Page 167] that sentimental piety wasn’t vanilla; it was thinly veiled fire, rooted in a “highly sectarian, partisan configuration born out of contemporary religious developments” (2).
This book is deeply researched. And it has to be; it makes large claims. For example, Stokes tells us early on that “the theological contents of sentimental piety derive primarily from Methodism and the vibrant culture of revivalism it sparked” (3). Her argument that sentimentalism owes much to the Second Great Awakening is imaginative, and it asks us to shed our preconceptions about what sentimentalism is and what it does. That’s because the first image we associate with sentimental piety might be a silent, reflective woman reading within the confines of a home. Or we might conjure up a character like The Wide, Wide World’s Ellen Montgomery slowly becoming more and more like Alice Humphreys under the panoptic gaze of John Humphreys. To think that a revivalist impulse burns at the core of sentimental piety is counterintuitive. But Stokes makes a convincing case that we need to reimagine what sentimental piety looks like, and what ideological streams feed its heart.
And Stokes has done more. She’s discovered that US sentimental literature derives some of its characteristics from religious impulses that we’ve not yet considered; she has found the sentimental where we haven’t yet looked for it; and she’s showed us how the sentimental never really died off, because it got into religions. Sentimentalism, she contends, was (and in many ways remains) a “constituent, integral feature of ” Mormonism and Christian Science.
Stokes examines a “more capacious and tensile” sentimental archive, arguing that hymns, spiritual autobiographies, and spiritual revelations were forms that gave sentimentalism purchase “beyond the conventional channels of literary distribution” and allowed it to have a deep and abiding effect on the religious lives of countless Americans. Attending to more conventional channels, we’ve overlooked key players in literary history. Stokes tells us plainly that “[s]ome of the most influential sentimental women writers of the nineteenth century have never been recognized as such because their work circulated within confined sectarian circles and openly promoted a sectarian belief set” (12).
Her work is inspired by scholars like Ann Douglas, Nina Baym, Gillian Brown, Jane Tompkins, Gregory S. Jackson, David S. Reynolds, [End Page 168] and Candy Gunther Brown...