The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789-1860

The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789-1860

The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789-1860

The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789-1860

Excerpt

The historian of American fiction may handle his subject in one of two ways. He may (as G. K. Chesterton has observed with respect to Victorian literature) divide it as one cuts a piece of currant cake, taking the currants as they come. Or he may divide it as one cuts wood--along the grain. In this history of the sentimental novel in America, from the beginning to the Civil War, I have attempted to follow the grain--to trace in popular fiction some manifestations of the sentimental mind.

As a means of presenting a cross-section of the national imagination as it is revealed in the abundant outpouring of sentimental novels, I have been primarily concerned with social trends, forces, creeds, movements, and literary fashions. The reflection of these streams of thought is, with a few exceptions, more significant than a chronological account of authors and novels. Many of the titles of these faded favorites, it is charitable to remark at the threshold of this book, deserve to appear on any list of the world's worst fiction. Collectively, however, they represent a wide level of taste, and they have had an enormous influence upon the lives of the American people. The familiar names of the giants of the period appear in this faintly perfumed world of sentimental fiction only when their novels offer striking contrasts to the prevailing mood, or when they reveal traces of the "handkerchiefly" feeling.

Although very few of these once popular novels are read today by critical readers with anything save an ironical appreciation, the secret of their wide appeal is not entirely obscured by their feverish sentiment. They provided a welcome compensation for the emotions, activities, and ideals which life denied to countless readers. They contained an amazing vitality which often transcended their preposterous plots. Frequently they voiced the genuine aspirations of their age.

In making the present study I have received hearty assistance from many friends who have had and have my best thanks. A

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