The Plight of Feeling: Sympathy and Dissent in the Early American Novel

The Plight of Feeling: Sympathy and Dissent in the Early American Novel

The Plight of Feeling: Sympathy and Dissent in the Early American Novel

The Plight of Feeling: Sympathy and Dissent in the Early American Novel

Synopsis

American novels written in the wake of the Revolution overflow with self-conscious theatricality and impassioned excess. In The Plight of Feeling, Julia A. Stern shows that these sentimental, melodramatic, and gothic works can be read as an emotional history of the early republic, reflecting the hate, anger, fear, and grief that tormented the Federalist era. Stern argues that these novels gave voice to a collective mourning over the violence of the Revolution and the foreclosure of liberty for the nation's noncitizens--women, the poor, Native and African Americans. Properly placed in the context of late eighteenth-century thought, the republican novel emerges as essentially political, offering its audience gothic and feminized counternarratives to read against the dominant male-authored accounts of national legitimation. Drawing upon insights from cultural history and gender studies as well as psychoanalytic, narrative, and genre theory, Stern convincingly exposes the foundation of the republic as an unquiet crypt housing those invisible Americans who contributed to its construction.

Excerpt

The famous injunction that the story of the 1790s in America should be told as an "emotional history" reveals little awareness that the sentimental, melodramatic, and gothic novels of the period in fact constitute the very affective chronicle remaining to be written. Indeed, the explicit omission of fiction from what scholars of the early republic consider the legitimate historical archive is utterly unremarkable. Through the mid-1970s, students of eighteenth-century American politics, as well as critics charting the rise of an indigenous literary tradition, find little of value or interest in the novels of the post-Revolutionary era; rather than read such works on their own peculiar and fascinating terms, they dismiss the nation's first imaginative productions as derivative, bloodless, and maudlin, the effusions of a minor cohort of ersatz new-world Richardsonians. Yet, far more graphically than either public documents or private correspondence, the early American novel brilliantly animates the notion that the Federalist epoch is "an age of passion," dominated by hate, anger, fear, and, most hauntingly, grief.

Attempting to understand the tumultuous era following independence and ratification of the Constitution by reexamining the cultural affect that infuses it, The Plight of Feeling charts the tides in American attitudes toward heightened emotion in the years 1789-99. I argue that those eighteenth- century novels best remembered for impassioned excess elaborate, in fictive . . .

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