Love's Whipping Boy: Violence and Sentimentality in the American Imagination

Love's Whipping Boy: Violence and Sentimentality in the American Imagination

Love's Whipping Boy: Violence and Sentimentality in the American Imagination

Love's Whipping Boy: Violence and Sentimentality in the American Imagination

Synopsis

Working to reconcile the Christian dictum to "love one's neighbor as oneself" with evidence of U.S. sociopolitical aggression, including slavery, corporal punishment of children, and Indian removal, Elizabeth Barnes focuses her attention on aggressors--rather than the weak or abused--to suggest ways of understanding paradoxical relationships between empathy, violence, and religion that took hold so strongly in nineteenth-century American culture.
Looking at works by Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Lousia May Alcott, among others, Barnes shows how violence and sensibility work together to produce a more "sensitive" citizenry. Aggression becomes a site of redemptive possibility because salvation is gained when the powerful protagonist identifies with the person he harms. Barnes argues that this identification and emotional transformation come at a high price, however, as the reparative ends are bought with another's blood.
Critics of nineteenth-century literature have tended to think about sentimentality and violence as opposing strategies in the work of nation-building and in the formation of U.S. national identity. Yet to understand how violence gets folded into sentimentality's egalitarian goals is to recognize, importantly, the deep entrenchment of aggression in the empathetic structures of liberal, Christian culture in the United States.

Excerpt

For the past two decades, scholars of nineteenth-century U.S. literature have wrestled with the problems and possibilities presented by American sentimental culture. Alternately scorned as a superficial (and hypocritical) cure-all for social injustices and lauded as a radical intervention into the self-interested aims of capitalist culture, sentimentalism has evaded our attempts to pin down its particular (ab)use in U.S. society. I believe this is in part because sentimental narratives tend to work both toward and against an ideal vision of democratic community. In their invocation of empathy for others, nineteenth-century sentimental texts posit the potential for breaking down hierarchical structures to acknowledge the core suffering that all human beings, regardless of rank or position, share. Yet the fullest manifestations of empathy in these texts continue to operate across a status divide, albeit an inverted one: in sentimental narratives, as Lori Merish notes, the “weak” have ethical primacy over the “strong” by virtue of the former’s “intimate knowledge of suffering, a sign of Christ-like authenticity.” In the sentimental scenario, true personhood is attained not by social elevation but by encounters with pain, encounters to which the “strong” have access via their empathy with the “weak”: through their identification with the suffering victim, even the empowered gain “authentic,” “Christ-like” subjectivity.

The emphasis on shared pain as a catalyst for achieving true personhood and democratic union complicates what Merish goes on to describe as the “civilizing” process of sentimentality, a process in which the aggression of the “strong” is sublimated “into sympathetic desire.” As I see it, in their equation of suffering with authenticity, nineteenth-century sentimental texts implicitly (and often explicitly) authorize nonsublimated aggression as a means through . . .

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