- Emotional Reinventions: Realist-Era Representations beyond Sympathy by Melanie V. Dawson
If “emotion as a subject” is the purview of the “sentimental enterprise,” how then is an avowed literary realist to claim this terrain of human experience (15)? This is a central question that Melanie Dawson addresses in her new book, Emotional Reinventions: Realist-Era Representations beyond Sympathy. In it, she examines how writers from William Dean Howells and Mark Twain to Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Charles Chesnutt sought to attend to emotion as a subject while remaining true to core realist attitudes and representational commitments. By the 1870s, the expression and codification of emotion preoccupied Charles Darwin and a range of realism-friendly thinkers such as Herbert Spencer, William James, and Thorstein Veblen. Emotional Reinventions traces the strategies that exemplary realist writers used in “deploying and containing emotion” (42): methods for wrestling potentially destabilizing, boundary-blurring affects into a contained, stabilized form while attempting to ward off the unappealing alternative of “seeming virtually emotionless” (172). [End Page 443]
The book consists of five chapters, each centered on a key literary figure or set of textual comparisons. The case studies often examine characters in novels and their (sometimes implicit) theories about emotional expression, although there is also discussion of literary form and readers’ affective responses. The first chapter maintains that Howells, in seeking to avoid the excesses of “broad-scale modes of emotion” (44), ended up confining fellow feeling (in his criticism and among his characters) to intra-class affection. The chapter treating Henry James emphasizes emotion as less a lived relation to the world and more an object of analysis in and of itself. Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors displays a “penchant for parsing emotional life instead of experiencing it” (103); he engages in “rigorous emotional cataloguing” that Dawson attributes to James the novelist and aligns with the work of natural scientists François Delsarte and Charles Darwin (103, 101). Edith Wharton’s bleak novella Ethan Frome, when coupled with Darwin’s and William James’s physiological theories, demonstrates the influence of heredity, habit, and environment on characters’ emotional repertoires. A chapter on passing narratives by Pauline Hopkins and Mark Twain examines the racial stakes of “unregulated emotion” (175). These texts, Dawson urges, oscillate between the Scylla of intense passions, which tend to place African American characters in danger, and the Charybdis of detached irony, which, in the case of the racially mixed twins in Pudd’nhead Wilson, “prevent[s] any empathy with the character[s]” (194).
Emotional Reinvestments at times suggests that emotion is a quantity and thus susceptible to forms of measurement or careful distribution. (This idea in some ways echoes Wai Chee Dimock’s discussion of “the economy of pain” in The Rise of Silas Lapham .) “Consciously calibrated emotion” (165), the subject of chapter 4, offers a helpful way of thinking about the affective modulations of Charles Chesnutt’s characters. Deft readings of The Marrow of Tradition show that quick, vehement passions such as rage or disgust are neither authentic nor accurate, while the cultivation of complex feelings is neither artificial nor dissimulating. It is the African American characters, Dawson argues, who become adept at this complex emotional choreography, while white figures—whose social power allows them to be “devoid of self-control” (173)—are ill-served by both their gut feelings and their simplistic theory of emotional transparency. If emotion can (and presumably should) be carefully calibrated, Dawson also suggests that fellow feeling may be in short supply and therefore susceptible to rationing. A final chapter on two multi-perspectival novels, The Whole Family and Charles M. Sheldon’s In His Steps, points to the phenomenon of “competitive feeling” (200) in which a range of voices vie for a limited readerly repository of sympathy. Co-written by twelve different authors (eight of whom were women), including Mary Wilkins Freeman, Howells, and James, The Whole [End Page 444] Family becomes “an overtly competitive arena of empathetic hyperidentifcation” (203). In the case of...