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The Sentimental Novel in America, 1785-1860

ENGL 255.301
instructor(s):
TR 9-10:30

In this course we will examine the rise and progress of one of the most popular genres of post-Revolutionary American writing: the sentimental novel. Though long stigmatized as derivative parlor-literature, when considered in the material and intellectual contexts in which they were produced and consumed, sentimental novels can radically change our perspectives on the past, present, and future of the American polity; they may be understood to constitute another kind of Founding. Our work will begin in the eighteenth century, with novels that at once dramatize and domesticate the philosophical, political, and economic tensions of the Revolution: William Hill Brown’s Power of Sympathy, Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland. We will then move into the nineteenth century, to novels that take up the great social questions of the time, including Indian removal (Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok), women’s rights (Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s A NewEngland Tale), race and slavery (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and William Wells Brown’s Clotel) and temperance (T.S. Arthur’s Ten Nights in a Bar-room). We will also look briefly at American sentimentality in other literary forms, including poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and essays by James Madison, William Apess, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Questions that we will address will include: How do books work to generate “feeling” and to mobilize it to effect political and social change? How do these novels negotiate the complicated relationships of gender, class, race, faith and emotion? What are the structural similarities between family and society, and how do those similarities work to naturalize contentious relations of power? Why were these novels so popular, and what does this popularity reveal about the United States in its first century? What does it mean to turn feeling into a commodity-or into language?