Twentieth-Century Sentimentalism: Narrative Appropriation in American Literature

Twentieth-Century Sentimentalism: Narrative Appropriation in American Literature

Twentieth-Century Sentimentalism: Narrative Appropriation in American Literature

Twentieth-Century Sentimentalism: Narrative Appropriation in American Literature


Today's critical establishment assumes that sentimentalism is an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary mode that all but disappeared by the twentieth century. In this book, Jennifer Williamson argues that sentimentalism is alive and well in the modern era. By examining working-class literature that adopts the rhetoric of "feeling right" in order to promote a proletarian or humanist ideology as well as neo-slave narratives that wrestle with the legacy of slavery and cultural definitions of African American families, she explores the ways contemporary authors engage with familiar sentimental clichés and ideals.

Williamson covers new ground by examining authors who are not generally read for their sentimental narrative practices, considering the proletarian novels of Grace Lumpkin, Josephine Johnson, and John Steinbeck alongside neo-slave narratives written by Margaret Walker, Octavia Butler, and Toni Morrison. Through careful close readings, Williamson argues that the appropriation of sentimental modes enables both sympathetic thought and systemic action in the proletarian and neo-slave novels under discussion. She contrasts appropriations that facilitate such cultural work with those that do not, including Kathryn Stockett's novel and film The Help. The book outlines how sentimentalism remains a viable and important means of promoting social justice while simultaneously recognizing and exploring how sentimentality can further white privilege.

Sentimentalism is not only alive in the twentieth century. It is a flourishing rhetorical practice among a range of twentieth-century authors who use sentimental tactics in order to appeal to their readers about a range of social justice issues. This book demonstrates that at stake in their appeals is who is inside and outside of the American family and nation.


Contemporary beliefs about sentimentalism or “the sentimental” are that sentimentalism is an outdated mode of appealing to readers and to the general public. This opinion is largely influenced by the cultural sway of twentieth-century modernism, which asserted that sentimentalism portrays emotion that lacks reality or depth, falling flat in its attempts to depict real life and achieving only feminine melodrama. However, narrative claims to feeling—particularly those based in common and recognizable forms of suffering—have remained popular throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Contemporary authors continue to portray the struggles of working-class families to survive economic hardships as well as immigrants who seek to overcome obstacles and rise above poverty and intolerance. They depict women who suffer at the hands of abusive lovers or make constant self-sacrifice to care for others. They describe African American men and women who strive to transcend historical and present-day violence, racism, poverty, and discrimination. There continues to be a fascination with the suffering of vulnerable individuals whose identities render them cultural “Others.” Authors writing sentimentalized depictions of suffering not only generate sympathy for their subjects but continue the nineteenth-century project of arguing for their inclusion in American culture and connecting them to American sentimental ideologies of the “national family.”

Because of its roots in the nineteenth century, contemporary authors self-consciously struggle with sentimentalism’s seemingly outdated gender, class, and race ideals. However, its dual ability to promote . . .

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