Sentimental Strategies in "Orphan Tales"
Mamma never kept house, and I never saw any body do it. -- THE WIDE, WIDE WORLD
Because orphans were such a ubiquitous and disturbing presence in mid nineteenth-centuryAmerican cities, it is hardly surprising that they figure so prominently in sentimental fiction. What is surprising, however, is that fictional orphans are so unrepresentative of society's real orphans, who were stationary, as opposed to upwardly mobile, members of the underclass. From a cultural standpoint, a literary work can be as important for those aspects of social reality it does not portray as for those it does. Insofar as one can reasonably analyze a novel in terms of a poetics of absence (what is left out) as well as a poetics of presence (what is put in), then this criterion becomes, beyond a standard of realism, a measure of ideology. Fiction that professes sympathy for "poor" orphans but does not depict genuine representatives of the category validates the charges of hypocrisy typically leveled at the sentimental genre. But the irony is that precisely because sentimental novels failed to depict the reality of orphanhood, they are a "realistic" mirror of the middle-class ideology that ordained the factual as well as the fictional exclusion of the poor from the family of the republic.
It is not only in the sentimental novel that the poor received so little attention during this period. Robert Bremner surmises that the reason for the neglect of the poor in the canonical literature is not that they were unknown but that they were considered unworthy of notice. He maintains that the popular