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Mary G. De Jong, ed., Sentimentalism in Nineteenth-Century America: Literary and Cultural Practices.

Mary G. De Jong, ed., Sentimentalism in Nineteenth-Century America: Literary and Cultural Practices (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2013), 232 pages, $75.00 cloth.

As Mary G. De Jong writes in her introduction to Sentimentalism in Nineteenth-Century America: Literary and Cultural Practices, "nineteenth-century sentimentalism is not [...] easily pinned down" (1)--and for good reason. Nineteenth-century U.S. sentimentalism was, as the title of this edited collection of essays points out, both a literary phenomenon and a cultural practice. The discourse shaped both men's and women's writings across a variety of genres, and reigned well beyond the realm of the private sphere. Accordingly, Sentimentalism in Nineteenth-Century America includes essays that cover authors from Lydia Maria Child and Louisa May Alcott to Walt Whitman and Henry James. Through these essays the collection questions and seeks to refine and expand critical understandings of U.S. sentimentalism and its nineteenth-century cultural and literary influence. It does so by consistently demonstrating the ways in which authors such as those noted above enlist, reshape, and confront the discourse.

De Jong's introduction to the volume traces familiar ground for those acquainted with scholarship on nineteenth-century U.S. sentimentalism: the discourse's transatlantic roots, its "protean nature" (2), and the major critical debates it has inspired. For those less familiar with these histories, the introduction will signal important formulations, questions, understandings, and deliberations surrounding the discourse. De Jong covers a great deal of ground; in sacrificing depth to breadth, however, the introduction does at times produce problematic gaps and circular repetitions within its critical history. While, for instance, the scholars, works, and debates that pushed sentimentalism beyond its gendered associations with women's writings are central to several of the essays in this collection, the introduction passes over this expansion, taking it almost for granted. Focusing on and connecting the areas of scholarship most important to framing the collection's essays (such as motherhood, reform, and mourning) would have provided the introduction with a clearer structure and a logic more relevant to its particular history of the field, while still offering the grounds for quite a broad overview of critical debates on sentimentalism.

The collection is organized topically (though also loosely chronologically), with the essays divided into sections on "Rethinking Sentimental Motherhood," "Reform and Sentimental Identification," and "Loss, Death, Mourning, and Grief." The essays in these sections, as De Jong suggests, are connected by their interest in sentimentality's ability "to accommodate the questioning of its own ideologies" (9). The collection is also broadly interested in sentimental discourse's role in constructing and critiquing the nineteenth-century United States as a nation, though a few of the essays do engage the British tradition of sympathy and sentiment. There are other connections between the sections as well. Essays investigating rhetorics of child rearing, for example, link not only to discussions of sentimental identification (which include how to reform poorly behaved children) but also to discussions of grief and mourning (including the omnipresent nineteenth-century figure of the dying child; more than one essay cites Karen Sanchez-Eppler's observation that "Dying is what children do most and do best in the literary and cultural imagination of nineteenth-century America" [64]). In addition to childrearing, identification, and mourning, the essays discuss texts and figures ranging from Godey's Lady's Book, Leaves of Grass, and memorial volumes to the tomboy, the bachelor, and the deaf-blind girl. As its title suggests, then, the collection connects an array of nineteenth-century U.S. literary texts and cultural phenomena.

The first section of the collection, on motherhood, includes essays by Kara B. Clevinger, Ken Parille, and D. Zachary Finch. In focusing on motherhood the section also examines constructions of the American child and American childhood. As these essays demonstrate, the figure of "the sentimental mother" was complicated and challenged even by those most invested in maintaining the mother's sentimental authority. The section on reform includes contributions from Elizabeth Petrino, Susan Toth Lord, and Kristen Proehl. These essays most explicitly engage ongoing critical questions regarding the altruistic motivations of sentimental identification--that is, they explore the extent to which sentimental identification also produces a sense of self-satisfaction for the reformer. This paradox carries different weight within each of the essays, but whether the central figure is Lydia Sigourney, Lydia Maria Child, or Louisa May Alcott, the issue is undeniably present. The final four essays explore what Adam Bradford terms "nineteenth-century America's culture of mourning and memorializing" (141). Alongside Bradford's essay are writings by Maglina Lubovich, Robert Arbour, and George Gordon-Smith. This set of essays is heavily concerned with sentimental discourse's role in community and nation building. Mourning and memorializing become ways of connecting the living as well as reconnecting the living with the dead--whether through bachelor reveries, Whitmanian poetics, or James' insistence upon the rationality of sentiment as a way of confronting and managing various types of loss. Even this brief overview of the volume should make clear the accuracy of Mary Louise Kete's observations in the Afterword; she notes that Sentimentalism in Nineteenth-Century America should remind us of how "sentimentality troubles the analytical opposition between text and context" and, even more importantly, of "how central the study of sentimentality has become to what need no longer be called the 'new Americanism'" (198, 197).

In focusing the topics noted above, the volume works to rethink scholarship on sentimentalism from within fairly well defined parameters: it seeks to revise discussions regarding nationalist, white, privileged sentimental formations. As such, it is less concerned with recent expansive critical debates over the role of discourse in negotiating racial and ethnic differences--whether in African American and American Indian writing, abolitionist circles, or on the frontier and beyond. In this way the collection is narrower than those it identifies as important predecessors--including Shirley Samuels' The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America (1992) and Mary Chapman and Glenn Hendler's Sentimental Men: Masculinity and the Politics of Affect in American Culture (1999). Even as the essays in the volume cover a range of writers, literary genres, and cultural formations, the collection remains focused, most useful for those interested in the role of sentimental discourse in constructing the United States as a white, wealthy, "properly" feeling nation in the nineteenth century.

Maria A. Windell

University of Colorado, Boulder

Work Cited

Sanchez-Eppler, Karen. "Then When We Clutch Hardest: On the Death of a Child and the Replication of an Image." In Sentimental Men: Masculinity and the Politics of Affect in American Culture. Ed. Mary Chapman and Glenn Hendler. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999.
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Author:Windell, Maria A.
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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