- Apocalyptic Sentimentalism: Love and Fear in U.S. Antebellum Literature by Kevin Pelletier, and: The Altar at Home: Sentimental Literature and Nineteenth-Century American Religion by Claudia Stokes
Starting from the same broad conviction, Apocalyptic Sentimentalism by Kevin Pelletier and The Altar at Home by Claudia Stokes take us in remarkably different directions. Both authors contribute to the ongoing critical project of understanding antebellum sentimentalism, and on two things they agree: we need to take its religious goals seriously, and we need to rethink the relationship of the genre to Calvinism. Current scholarship assumes that sentimentalism was born out of Enlightenment-era thinkers’ turn away from the pessimism of Calvinism and toward the optimism regarding human nature found in the Scottish Common Sense school of philosophy. Pelletier, however, insists that sentimentalism is pervaded by Calvinist influences and discourses. Stokes, by contrast, describes sentimentalism’s indifference toward Calvinism, arguing that the Second Great Awakening contributed more to the growth of sentimentalism than did Calvinism, which was thoroughly in decline by the time the Awakening inspired the growth of sentimentalism in the United States.
For Pelletier, the religiosity of sentimentalism reveals a discourse not simply of love and sympathy but also of terror. Love and terror are two sides of the same coin, Pelletier argues. Today, we may find it hard to understand terror as an expression of love, but when David Walker talks about “the wrath of the Lamb,” he does so advisedly (qtd. in Pelletier 73). Sentimentalism remains a genre that encourages the reader to love her neighbor, but it also threatens the reader with eternal damnation and divine retribution if she does not. For Pelletier, sentimentalism is apocalyptic and radical, not simply bourgeois [End Page 187] and tender. It may focus on local moments, but their significance inheres in an end-time structure. Its domestic portraits appear in the context of the millennium: the mother’s embrace and home-cooked meal today are her admission into heaven tomorrow. That is the sunny side of sentimentalism. But the other side—apocalyptic warning—is sentimental too: the slaveholder’s brutality today is his eternal damnation tomorrow. Because the apocalyptic meaning of the ordinary generates the basic structure of the sentimental plot, the effect of this literature is thus less simply one of “good feeling” than it is one of terror and anxiety.
Pelletier narrows his focus to antislavery uses of sentimental apocalypticism, in part because the need to love one’s neighbor is so politically consequential in this literature. The first third of the book addresses the roots of apocalyptic sentimentalism and their emergence in the writings of David Walker, Maria Stewart, and Lydia Maria Child. The middle third analyzes the flowering of this discursive structure in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Dred. The book closes with a lengthy analysis of the writings by and about John Brown.
One of Pelletier’s main points is that although sentimental morality stresses the need to love our fellow man, it does not explain how to make this happen. Scholars generally claim it pursues this aim by depicting models in which benevolent people love others and by encouraging readers to identify with both victims and benefactors. But, Pelletier asks, how will this bring readers to love slaves? It may show them that they should love the other, and it may even promote identification with others, but how will these accomplishments cause the reader to love another? For the authors he discusses, the answer is that it will not; readers need a stronger motivation. Hence, the authors pronounce threats of impending wrath if people do not love their fellow man. Filled with a sense of terror, this thinking goes, readers will devote themselves more assiduously to others’ needs.
In order to understand how terror might promote love, Pelletier stresses the deep logic of claims like Stowe...