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  • "Into the House of an Entire Stranger":Why Sentimental Doesn't Equal Domestic in Early American Fiction
  • Marion Rust (bio)

Catharine Maria Sedgwick, in an 1812 letter to her father, Theodore Sedgwick, described the difference between their two realms of influence. The passage has become central to the analysis of early American gender ideology. She wrote:

A life dignified by usefulness, of which it has been the object and the delight to do good, and the happiness to do it in an extended sphere, does furnish some points of imitation for the most limited routine of domestic life. Wisdom and virtue are never at a loss for occasions and times for their exercise; the same light that lightens the world is applied to individual use and gratification. You may benefit a Nation, my dear Papa, I may improve the condition of a fellow-being.

(Dewey 91)

Nancy Cott has cited this passage as evidence of "a broader cultural body of meaning" in which, "denied the incentive and opportunity for economic (and, generally, public) ambition" accorded to men, "women had instead the opportunity to serve others directly, within family relationships for the most part" (23). Nineteen years later, Philip Gould would return to the extract. Where Cott emphasized a distinction, he found similarity. "Despite her use of the metaphors of 'cottage' and 'palace,' to distinguish her sphere from her father's," he wrote, "Sedgwick subtly implied a gendered equivalence of their roles" (67). Here we have the two poles of what has come to be known as "republican motherhood," the idea that women derived political agency in the new republic by rendering the home a site of authority through the bearing and rearing of future citizens. Perhaps we should view it in terms of its more general appropriation over the past two decades, as "the domesticity thesis that currently superintends most inquiry into the condition of early national women" (Shields xxxi). Cott points out that [End Page 281] women in post-revolutionary America found themselves increasingly relegated to a home life set off from commercial activity, public assembly, and explicit political enfranchisement. Gould argues that they obtained power nonetheless, for domesticity became the locus of a privatized, but publicly traded, creed of virtue that they exemplified and administrated.1 The longevity of this paradigm, despite repeated challenges, is demonstrated in a recent passage from Andrew Burstein:

If women generally subordinated themselves and their private interests to the greater good of the world that men made, sensible men honored female self-suppression by accepting that their public virtue should parallel the gentle persuasions of domestic life and maternal sympathy and generosity . . . . Delicate women, modest, graceful, and well dressed when subject to the public gaze, were meant to act with companionable efficiency to preserve harmony in the home; sensitive and uncorruptible men were meant to act virtuously and generously to public advantage.


In Burstein's analysis, an emphasis on women at home is accompanied by a parallel accentuation on new modes of affect fostered within this realm, creating a synthesis now commonly referred to under the rubric of "sentimental domesticity."2

By calling attention both to the material conditions of middle-class female existence and to the rhetorical means by which these conditions were transformed into moral imperatives, sentimental domesticity has served scholars with a faithfulness demonstrated in its ubiquity in the investigation of gender, class, and nationalism in the early republic and beyond. It pervades the study of the early American sentimental novel.3 Cathy Davidson was among the first to observe that "the circumscription of the female character within the domestic sphere constitutes a defining feature of sentimental fiction" (Revolution 179). Richard Bushman went on to figure sentimental domesticity as a function of shifting class as well as gender roles in the new republic, noting that sentimental fiction "engaged the central problem of the period: how to adapt genteel values to middle-class life." These "efforts at adaptation," he continues, "can be summed up in the word 'domestication'" (281). More recently, explorations of the literary use of the "intimate" ideological space of the home to, in the words of Lauren Berlant, "bind persons to the nation" have noted "a surprising...


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pp. 281-309
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