The Sentimental Touch: The Language of Feeling in the Age of Managerialism

The Sentimental Touch: The Language of Feeling in the Age of Managerialism

The Sentimental Touch: The Language of Feeling in the Age of Managerialism

The Sentimental Touch: The Language of Feeling in the Age of Managerialism

Synopsis

Between 1850 and 1940, with the rise of managerial capitalism in the United States, the most powerful businesses ceased to be family owned, instead becoming sprawling organizations controlled by complex bureaucracies. Sentimental literature--work written specifically to convey and inspire deep feeling--does not seem to fit with a swiftly bureaucratizing society. Surprisingly, though, sentimental language persisted in American literature, even as a culture of managed systems threatened to obscure the power of individual affect. The Sentimental Touch explores the strange, enduring power of sentimental language in the face of a rapidly changing culture. Analyzing novels by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Sherwood Anderson, and Nathanael West, the book demonstrates that sentimental language changes but remains powerful, even in works by authors who self-consciously write against the sentimental tradition. Sentimental language has an afterlife, enduring in American literature long after authors and critics declared it dead, insisting that human feeling can resist a mechanizing culture and embodying, paradoxically, the way that literary conventions themselves become mechanical and systematic.

Excerpt

The most poignant moments in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are moments of touch. When characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel experience profound emotions, they are silent, but they are able to share their feelings through bodily contact. With a sentimental touch, characters and readers alike imagine they are experiencing unmediated emotion. For instance, after the runaway Eliza eludes slave-catchers by carrying her child across the icy Ohio River, she finds unlikely help from Senator and Mrs. Bird, who aid in her escape:

Mr. Bird hurried her into the carriage, and Mrs. Bird pressed on
after her to the carriage steps. Eliza leaned out of her carriage, and
put out her hand,—a hand as soft and beautiful as was given in
return. She fixed her large, dark eyes, full of earnest meaning, on
Mrs. Bird’s face, and seemed going to speak. Her lips moved,—she
tried once or twice, but there was no sound,—and pointing upward,
with a look never to be forgotten, she fell back in the seat, and cov
ered her face. The door was shut, and the carriage drove on.

Words elude Eliza. We know by her touch, though, that she conveys heartfelt gratitude to Mrs. Bird and that the two women share an earnest sympathy. There is no difference between the hand of the slave and the hand of the senator’s wife; both are “soft and beautiful,” equal in value, exchanged freely and easily. Stowe does not describe Eliza’s thoughts, but rather narrates her bodily actions. We know only by her movements that Eliza is overwhelmed with emotion. Though Eliza and Mrs. Bird are on . . .

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