Academic journal article Style

Towards a Sentimental Rhetoric: A Rhetorical Reading of Rebecca Harding Davis's "Life in the Iron Mills"

Academic journal article Style

Towards a Sentimental Rhetoric: A Rhetorical Reading of Rebecca Harding Davis's "Life in the Iron Mills"

Article excerpt

Since the 1970s and 80s, cultural studies have provided the dominant paradigm for the interpretation of sentimental fiction? In recent years, however, critics such as Joanna Dobson and Elizabeth Dillon have argued for the importance of considering the aesthetic dimensions of sentimental literature. (2) But for the most part, this new emphasis has created a gap between cultural and aesthetic studies, as the critics in each camp foreground different aspects of sentimental fiction. In this article, I propose to bridge that gap by turning to the rhetorical theory of narrative, an approach that leads us to a clearer perception of both the aesthetic complexity and cultural significance of sentimental fiction. At the same time, I will argue that sentimental fiction, and more specifically, Rebecca Harding Davis's "Life in the Iron Mills," prompts further refinements of the rhetorical model, especially its theorization of the relationship between the author and reader.

Although Robyn Warhol rightly calls her study of the links between authorial gender and the uses of engaging and distancing addresses to narratees in nineteenth-century British fiction an example of feminist narratology, her focus on the relationship between an author's choice of technique and its effect on audiences makes it compatible with rhetorical theory (for a fuller description of Warhol's model see the next section). Furthermore, since Davis's addresses to her narratees are such a central part of her rhetorical strategy, I will begin by suggesting how Davis's practice is only partially captured in Warhol's model. I will then turn to Peter J. Rabinowitz's rhetorical model of audiences and demonstrate how Davis's practice necessitates some additional discriminations among audience positions. I shall then build the bridge between this rhetorical analysis and the case for both the aesthetic and cultural value of sentimental fiction. More specifically, I shall argue that these rhetorical strategies arise in response to historical-cultural circumstances even as they lead to an aesthetically accomplished novella whose purposes include moving its audience to change those circumstances.

Clearing the Ground: Toward a More Nuanced Model of Rhetorical Audiences

Davis's narrator has always posed a problem for critics because of the contradictory appearances she gives. On the one hand, she speaks in a severe and accusatory tone towards a partially characterized addressee, and on the other, she betrays an apparent eagerness to engage the sympathy of the person she reproaches. The narrator repeatedly confronts her addressee with moral questions: "What do you make of a case like that, amateur psychologist?" (12), and, "You laugh at the shallow temptation?" (46). Yet, she also strongly urges him to go down with her "into the thickest of the fog and mud and foul effluvia" and see with his own eyes the life of the mill workers before shrugging it off as a dull and tiresome story (13). Given this problem, the critics Andrew Scheiber and Kirk Curnutt have come to directly opposite conclusions about the narrator, both using Warhol's theory of gendered intervention. Scheiber believes that the narrator's chiding addresses are engaging strategies meant to make the actual reader sympathize with the sufferers, but Curnutt insists that they are distancing strategies, creating "space between the fictional and the real world" (149).

This important disagreement does not mean that either critic has significantly misunderstood Warhol, or that Warhol's model contains any internal contradictions. It shows instead that there are certain complexities about the use of direct addresses to the narratee in "Life in the Iron Mills" that Warhol's otherwise powerful model cannot fully explain. Warhol regards a narrator as distancing when her direct addresses to the narratee characterize him as someone that the actual reader wants to move away from, and Warhol calls a narrator engaging when she uses earnest direct address to invoke identification between the actual reader and the narratee (29). …

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