The Importance of Feeling English: American Literature and the British Diaspora, 1750-1850

By Leonard Tennenhouse | Go to book overview

3
THE SENTIMENTAL LIBERTINE

THE SENTIMENTAL tradition is central to American letters. For reasons that should become clear in this chapter, American writers chose, and perhaps still choose, to write either within that tradition or against it. Even when they wrote against it, such writers had to draw on the plots, characters, and language associated with the sentimental tradition in order to take issue with it. Literary criticism has attributed this appeal not only to sentimentalism's overt political import but also to its ability to divert attention from the public sphere. Critics have both celebrated sentimental literature for demonstrating democratic virtues by creating fellow feeling among its readers and chastized it for debasing democracy by appealing to the lowest common denominator of the readership. It is deemed central in figuring the family as a model for the nation and criticized for titillating the reader with violations of family relations.1 Indeed, in sifting through the major criticism on sentimental literature, I can find only one point on which most critics agree; namely, that our sentimental literature not only originated in England but also took root in the North American colonies and assumed a shape that changed the British tradition. In this chapter, I will argue that much of what makes sentimentalism at once so central and so difficult to pin down politically derives from the fact that it was reshaped to accommodate what I am calling the “British diaspora.”

It is with the notion of diaspora in mind that I will attend to what certain authors did to British materials to make them address specifically American concerns. Samuel Richardson's heroines offer an excellent example. The British author sought to make—and to a large extent succeeded— them desirable, when he gave Pamela and Clarissa a form of interiority whose verbal prowess challenged the libertine's powers of sexual enticement and intellectual mastery. By intercepting her letters and reading her nuanced accounts of the moral dilemmas in which he placed her, Mr. B comes to feel for Pamela much as Lovelace does for Clarissa. Unlike Lovelace, Mr. B renounces his libertinage after a protracted struggle that pits his seductive powers of wealth and position against the authority of her words and the force of tender emotion. Through this struggle, Pamela emerges as the embodiment of a new class ethos that measures an individ-

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The Importance of Feeling English: American Literature and the British Diaspora, 1750-1850
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The Importance of Feeling English iii
  • For Nancy v
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • 1: Diaspora and Empire 1
  • 2: Writing English in America 19
  • 3: The Sentimental Libertine 43
  • 4: The Heart of Masculinity 73
  • 5: The Gothic in Diaspora 94
  • Afterword from Cosmopolitanism to Hegemony 118
  • Notes 129
  • Index 153
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