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Topics in 19th Century American Literature: American Sentiment

ENGL 558.301
instructor(s):
W 12-3

Much of American literature has often been described (and frequently derogated) as "sentimental," especially the most popular of American books, especially in the early national and antebellum periods. Conversely, much of the standard canon of American literature has positioned itself as stridently anti-sentimental. This course will examine the category of the sentimental and ask what is at stake in the long critical contention around it. Why has the sentimental long been (mistakenly) associated with the personal, private, domestic, and feminine, when it has been equally a hallmark of the collective, public, political and masculine? We will read widely in such classic sentimental writers as William Hill Brown, Susanna Rowson, Hannah Foster, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, as well as some writers usually understood as non- or anti-sentimental, like Charles Brockden Brown and Herman Melville. In addition we will investigate lesser-known writers like the playwright Royall Tyler, the poets Sarah Wentworth Morton and Ann Eliza Bleecker, and the sensation novelist George Thompson. One unusual aspect of the course will be our reading of the never-published and recently-rediscovered 1840s novel by Julia Ward Howe (best known as the author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"), the so-called "Laurence manuscript," which features a gender-switching hermaphrodite protagonist. Two recent critical studies will help orient us in the criticism: Julia Stern's The Plight of Feeling (1997) and Julie Ellison's Cato's Tears (1999). The books will be at House of Our Own Books (39th and Spruce), and students should read William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy for the first class meeting.