Thao Ho: Early Feminist Concepts in the Work of Sentimental Novelists (1790-1860) and the Contiguous Question of Empathy.

Thao Ho: Otherside of the Game[1]. Early Feminist Concepts in the Work of Sentimental Novelists (1790-1860) and the Contiguous Question of Empathy.


OTHERSIDE OF THE GAME.jpgAt last year’s TED conference[2], Monica Lewinsky asserts the horrendous impacts cyber bullying has on individuals and emphasizes the “need to return to a long-held value of compassion and empathy“.[3] In this aspect Lewinsky is not alone. A boom of literary publications on strengthening and preserving the nature of empathy has become apparent in recent years: In The Empathic Civilization (2010), Jeremy Rifkin argues that a global empathetic consciousness will resurrect the global economy and revitalize the biosphere.[4] In Unmaking War, Remaking Men (2010), Kathleen Barry offers models for a new masculinity and discusses the values we hold for human life.[5] In Politics of Empathy: Ethics, Solidarity, Recognition (2012), Anthony Clohesy contends the emergence of a more compassionate world.[6] In a society that is technologically connected more than ever, we seem to be drifting emotionally apart more than we congregate. Nonetheless, there are voices that vehemently refuse feelings, emotions or sentimentality in general. In Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality (2010), Theodore Dalrymple insists that sentimentality is the “progenitor, the god-parent, the midwife of brutality“[7] and much quoted James Baldwin calls it the “ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion“.[8]

The political disapprobation of sentimentality[9] in American society is, however, not solely a modernist attitude but reaches far back in time and debuts in the Victorian Age with the publications of sentimental novels written by women. Mostly belittled by the male-dominated scholarly circle throughout centuries, these female writers were part of a dichotomy that contrasted them with male critics such as Melville, Thoreau and Whitman who acted as the embodiment of intellectuality. What possible impact can a “damned mob of scribbling women“[10] have on deeper cultural politics if their novels are symptomatic of endless sobering, moaning and prayer seemingly ensnaring the public in a world that is out of touch with reality? The widespread aesthetic disdain for sentimentality and untenable criticism of its uselessness in literature and politics undermines the idiosyncrasies that are interpolated in these sentimental texts which are more complex and socially critical than assumed. The aim of this paper is to shed light on the feminist work, including body politics, sentimental novelists such as Susanna Rowson, Hannah Webster Foster and Harriet Beecher Stowe have accomplished through their writings, and thus diametrically oppose the view of critics denouncing them. Analyzing the voices of sentimental novels can anachronistically enrich our understanding of the important role empathy plays in our society. In the following pages these questions will be subject: What are the reasons for the denigration of sentimentality? What feminist work have sentimentalist novelists done? Do we even need empathy? How can we preserve it?

Part One: Reason defeats, emotions conquer?

The oil painting Bacchus (1595) by Caravaggio depicts a half-naked young man identified by the grape and wine leaves in his hair as the Greek god of fertility and epiphany.[11] A bowl of fruit and a carafe of red wine are placed in front of him and in his left hand he holds a glass of the same wine, seemingly inviting us to take a sip; therewith confronting the viewer with a temptation that is all too familiar. The viewer’s response to the painting may thus be a recreation of the moral choice between reason and desire. The dichotomy of reason versus passion reaches back to the ancient Greek whereas reason was valued more than physical sensation. In Truth: A History and a Guide for the Perplexed (1997), historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto maintains that “[r]eason is supposed to be one of the faculties the ancient Greeks taught us to prize“.[12] In fact, Parmenides introduces the concept of pure rationalism by arguing that truth can only be accessed through the mind, while reliance on our sensory faculties will only lead to deceitfulness. These ideas have strongly influenced Plato and quintessentially paved the way for Western philosophy. Even centuries later, the dominating consensus concerning the fundaments of human consciousness belonged to the rationalist just as it did in the ancient Greek.[13] In The History of Western Philosophy (1945), Bertrand Russell restates that “thought is nobler than sense, and the objects of thought are more real than those of sense-perception“[14] and Christopher Hitchens advises us to “distrust compassion,“ and instead to “prefer dignity for yourself and others“.[15] Considering the persistence of Greek philosophy in Western minds, Hegel, in fact, insisted that philosophy essentially is Greek:

Philosophy is being at home with the self, just like the homeliness of the Greek; it is man’s being at home in his mind, at home with himself. If we are at home with the Greeks, we must be at home more particularly in their Philosophy; not, however, simply as it is with them, for Philosophy is at home with itself, and we have to do with Thought, with what is most specially ours, and with what is free from all particularity. The development and unfolding of thought has taken place with them from its earliest beginning, and in order to comprehend their Philosophy we may remain with them — without requiring to seek for further and external influences.[16]

Consequently, philhellenism has contributed to the prevailing notion that solely those who believe in the virtue of rationalism and cynically criticize the world (of feelings) can be seen as intellectual and noble in thought. The superiority complex of the mind also resonates in American literary studies seen in its narrow confines of “good“ literature and the selected canon of American classics. It is therefore no surprise that the Sentimental Novel, which is symptomatic of excessive emotional outbreaks, and thus heavily relies on emotion and empathy, has been accused of manipulation, delusion and is naturally said to be completely moronic. As Jane Tompkins has already remarked in the introduction of her work Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (1985), only a small group of male intellectuals had control over the canon of American literature that prevented even the most committed feminists to believe in the value of a powerful and female novelist tradition.[17] She mentions historian and Harvard professor Perry Miller, who is referred to as the “master of American intellectual history,“[18] and literary critic F. O. Matthiessen, author of American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman which explicitly celebrates the achievements of several 19th century American authors (sentimental novelists are not included). The list continues with Richard Volney Chase who makes a clear distinction between novel and romance,[19] the latter characterized by vaunted realism opposed to disprized escapism, R. W. B. Lewis widely known for his work The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (1950) in which he explores the American as a “new man, an innocent Adam“[20] and argues that Adam’s self-disassociation from the historic past in the new world is the transforming ingredient of the American mind that shaped the mind of all lesser thinkers. Having such personalities in the circle of those who determine what American society and literature is ought to be, sentimental novelists did not have much of a chance to get the acknowledgement they deserved. Tompkins further asserts twentieth century critics have promoted the deprecation of the Sentimental Novel through generations by equating its “success with debasement, emotionality with ineffectiveness, religiosity with fakery, domesticity with triviality, and all of these, implicitly, with womanly inferiority“[21], evidently creating contrasting spheres that will be discussed later in this paper. However at a first glance the modernists’ rejection of sentimental texts as intellectual work seems comprehensible:

“Oh god,“ cried Charlotte, clasping her hands in agony, “this is too much; what will become of me? […] Charlotte bowed her head in silence; but the anguish of her heart was too great to permit her to articulate a single word.[22]

The use of overly emotional outbursts and gestures might remind the reader of Mary Magdalene who can usually be seen with clasping hands and a pitiful posture, for instance in Correggio’s St Mary Magdalene and Christ (1525)[23] or Béraud’s Mary Magdalene in the House of the Pharisee (1891).[24] Surely, passages in sentimental texts seem to be literary depicting religious pictures which in fact gave them the name of “Sunday-School fiction“.[25] However, sentimental novelists were much aware of their excessive use of “ahs!“ and “ohs!“[26] In Charlotte Temple, Rowson includes chapters of “reflection“ that regularly interrupt the story and invite the reader to “take a pause“ from emotion, so he or she can continuously reflect on the happenings.[27] Especially, the much discussed sentimental and anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)[28] by Harriet Beecher Stowe was, at the time of publication, poised to become an emotional powerhouse simply because of Stowe’s targeted use of sentimentalism:

“O, Topsy, poor child, I love you!“ said Eva, with a sudden burst of feeling, and laying her little thin, white hand on Topsy’s shoulder; “I love you, because you haven’t had any father, or mother, or friends; because you’ve been a poor, abused child! I love you, and I want you to   be good. I am very unwell, Topsy, and I think I shan’t live a great whim; and it really grieves me, to have you be so naughty. I wish you would try to be good, for my sake;—it’s only a little while I shall be with you.[29]

Child-death, self-immolation, separation of mother and child (through death or slavery) – these are recurring themes in sentimental texts that shall entice empathy. These motifs can also be found in Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin which has taken the center of discourse on sentimental novels and their societal impact, specifically on slavery. The story features Uncle Tom, a suffering black slave and displays the issue of slavery from different perspectives by including stories of slaveholders as well. Notably, Stowe, in contrast to other abolitionists at that time, solely relies on compassion. She insists that social problems cannot be changed by altering political or economical arrangements but only by the change of heart.[30] In the last chapter of Uncle Tom’s Cabin she concludes:

There is one thing that every individual can do—they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race. See, then, to your sympathies in this matter![31]

Consequently, the modern mindset that struggles to make sense of empathy and compassion has to be set aside in order to reconcile power with empathy. However, this is difficult in a society that insists on dichotomies in which emotion is opposed to rationalism; sentimentalism to the possibilities of “real power“ and the feminine to the masculine national body.

Part Two: Two spheres, one home

The notion of spheres is deeply rooted in American culture. As Tocqueville remarked on his visit to America in 1835: “In no country has such constant care been taken as in America to trace two clearly distinct lines of action for the two sexes and to make them keep pace one with the other, but in two pathways that are always different.“[32] Contrasting American women and European feminists, Tocqueville observed that the latter was eager to erase the line between the two spheres while the former was not. The intense social restriction pushed and kept them in the “circle of domestic life“[33] which soon established itself as the place where distinguishing characteristics of American womanhood shall be found.[34] Women then were to be said to live in a distinct world where everything revolved around the husband, the children and nurturing activities. Eventually, historians started to use the metaphor of “sphere“[35] to describe the women’s part in American culture. The idea of “Inner and Outer Space“ found support in psychological sciences when Erik H. Erikson reported visible correspondence between male and female principles and body construction: while girls used given blocks to build interior spaces, boys used them to construct exterior scenes.[36] In fact, these two spheres can be found in 19th century American literature as well, in which the Sentimental Novel is the voice of those confined in the hidden sphere of the Other: women, slaves, children condemned inferior to the male national body were given a voice that urged to be heard. It was the only way to deliver their thoughts to the public since speaking out was considered a male act and thus put women at risk of endangering not only their feminine reputation but also the public perception of female sexuality.[37] Therefore, writing was their only way of self-expression and a tactically better way to publish one’s thoughts; it was a way to speak-out without exposing oneself. Many female writers adopted another name in order to hide their identity, for instance Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and Sara Payson Willis, author of Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present Time (1854).[38] The pressures of society to conform to the image of proper femininity did not match with the demand of professional authorship, let alone a career. Despite the difficulties female writers had to face, they changed the role of American literature from art to an instrument of social provocation by directly addressing the reader: [39]

And now, reader, I come to a period in my unhappy life […] For years, my master has done his utmost to pollute my mind with foul images […] The influence of slavery had had the same effect on me that they had on other young girls; they had made me prematurely knowing, concerning the evil ways of world.[40]

But the Sentimental Novel also gives insight into the female sphere, the home. Heroes rarely get beyond the private sphere; most of the “sentimental texts metaphorically and literally take place in the closet“[41] – whereas the adventures of transcendentalists Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman took place outside of the confinements of domesticity. Thoreau’s Walden narrates the simple life in nature, outside home, away from mass-industrialization.[42] Ironically, Thoreau does not exactly live in nature but in a cabin – a home near a lake on Emerson’s property. Nevertheless, they were celebrated as “innocent Adams“ and considered as those who shaped the American mind.[43] But even before their time, Crèvecœur’s Letters of an American Farmer (1782) revolve around a farmer who ponders about the American identity by looking at the wide fields in front of him while turning his back on the private sphere of the home.[44] Once again the “Inner and Outer Space“ talked about earlier resonates in literature: masculine outdoor images are opposed to indoor images.[45] In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe takes the reader on a guided tour introducing the public to a sphere unknown. Similar to a tourist, the reader enters Uncle Tom’s home:

Let us enter the dwelling. The evening meal at the house if over, and Aunt Chloe, who presided over its preparation as head cook, has left to inferior officer in the kitchen the business of clearing away and washing dishes, and come out into her own snug territories, to “get her ole man’s supper“; therefore, doubt not that it is her you see by the fire, presiding with anxious interest over certain frizzling items in a stew-pan, and anon with grave consideration lifting the cover of a bake-kettle, from whence steam forth indubitable intimations of “something good.“[46]

Consequently, sentimental novels give us the complementary image of the outdoor world. Discourses on the imaginary concept of spheres did not only refer to Tocqueville but also Friedrich Engels conceptualized the dichotomy of the private and the public in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). He asserts that through the “world-historical defeat of the female sex“[47] the home, which is understood to be the space of the women, is essentially controlled by men. Engels as well as Karl Marx contended that the home is the psychic locus of struggle between the sexes.[48] It is therefore not surprising to find one-dimensionality in discourses on social order, since its playground, represented by the Sentimental Novel, is nowhere to be found in “intellectual“ circles and therefore does not include everyone ought to be engaged. Besides guiding us through the private sphere, Stowe in fact shows the reader a slave’s closet. Slavery underlines the advantages of the female over the masculine side because the central fable of slavery in America was written by women. Indeed, Jacobs and Beecher intended to give authentic insight on the lives and minds of slaves but were often criticized for their over-simplified depiction. Especially James Baldwin vehemently insists on the counterfeits of black identity in Stowe’s abolitionist novel and seals Uncle Tom’s death as its denigration and acceptation of inferiority to the White population.[49] In fact the death of slaves, women and children in sentimental texts have been frequently reiterated by literary critics and were only seen as an emotional instrument to entice empathy without making any significant change. Death, as already mentioned is a recurring theme in sentimental novels: in several texts we encounter the death of Charlotte Temple, Eliza Wharton, Uncle Tom and Eva, Ruth’s first child Daisy, as well as her husband’s Harry. However, dying is, especially in Stowe’s terms, not weakness but the supreme form of heroism.[50] It is not the equivalent of defeat, but victory and the gain of power rather than the loss of it. Sentimental novelists re-enact the compelling philosophy of Christ’s death in their protagonists in which women, children and slaves, the pure and powerless, die to save the powerful and corrupt, “thereby show[ing] themselves more powerful than those they save“ and enable the “helpless within society to gain by means of sentimental experience full representation through the central moral category of compassion“.[51] In other words, the sentimental novel acts as a speaker for the Others and represented the power of those who have been kept voiceless. Nevertheless, critics such as Ann Douglas continue to talk about a “sentimentalization of death“.[52] Douglas further argues that Victorian America has paved the way of American mass culture and describes the rise of the sentimental novel as the feminization of American intellectual life that led to a retardation of culture.[53] The recurrent use of dichotomies can be found in Douglas’ argumentation as well and naturally gave the term feminization a negative connotation which can, in fact, also be observed in contemporary society: feminization of poverty, feminization of masculinity etc. Women in that time were tightly restricted in the circle of domestic life and they were much aware of it. Grace Gordon Galloway writes in a private complaint:

         . . . I am Dead

         Dead to each pleasing thought each Joy of Life

         Turn’d to that heavy lifeless lump a wife.[54]

Such confessions of despair in a life of dependence anticipate writers such as Betty Friedan and Sylvia Plath[55] and illustrate the confinements of a feme covert. The two sole missions of American women were finding a husband and starting a family. Thus, the question sentimental heroines asked themselves was whom to marry, but they also dared to scrutinize marriage and the life following it. Eliza Wharton in The Coquette ponders:

Marriage is the tomb of friendship. It appears to me a very selfish state. Why do people, in general, as soon as they are married, centre all their cares, their concerns, and pleasures in their own families? former acquaintances are neglected or forgotten. [56]

In a letter to Lucy Freeman she later declares, well aware of her responsibilities imposed by society, her repellent attitude towards marriage:

While I own myself under obligations […] I recoil at the thought of immediately forming a connection, which must confine me to the duties of domestic life, and make me dependent for happiness, perhaps too, for subsistence, upon a class of people, who will claim the right of scrutinizing every part of my conduct; and by censuring those foibles, which I am conscious of not having prudence to avoid, may render me completely miserable.[57]

Abigail Adams also remarked how “it is sad slavery to have children as fast as she has“[58] when noting on a young woman in her family. Childbirth was indeed a mixed blessing considering the high rate of death in childbearing and was hardly controllable without contraception. However, the fertility rate declines immensely in the 19th century: before 1900 it declines by 50 percent.[59] Demographers suggested that it correlates with the newly gained literacy of women and Carl N. Degler further contends that the tremendous fall of the birth rate was one main indicator of women’s changing role in society.[60] Thus the Sentimental Novel with its twin mission of giving women a voice and educating them might have been the best anti-baby pill of the time.[61] Ultimately, Rowson warns young women of the danger of seduction, a central theme in Charlotte Temple and The Coquette: „Oh my dear girls—for to such only am I writing—listen not to the voice of love, unless sanctioned by paternal approbation: be assured, it is now past the days of romance.“[62]

Furthermore, the earliest critique of the domestic sphere and its separation from any political or economical discourse can be found in sentimental texts as well:

[…] her mother replied, that she never meddled with politics; she thought they did not belong to ladies. Miss Wharton and I […] must beg to differ from you, madam. We think ourselves interested in the welfare and prosperity of our country; and, consequently, claim the right of inquiring into those affairs […]. If the community flourish and enjoy health and freedom, shall we not share in the happy effects? if it be oppressed and disturbed, shall we not endure our proportion of the evil? Why then should the love of our country be a masculine passion only?[63]

Certainly, these thoughts reflect the concepts later followed by the equalitarian feminism movement – as Wollstonecraft and Judith Sargent Murray have suggested: domestic equality paves the way to larger forms of equality; the home is the base that will make the private become political.[64] Even though Wollstonecraftism was later used with a bad connotation, its original idea of equal sexes resonates in many writings of sentimental novelists. The story of Charlotte Temple, for instance, suggests that only human fallibility and trust can level gender boundaries. In fact, staying true to morals will protect you regardless what sex you are. This point of view consequently equates women and men by indicating the importance of morality. Moreover, sentimental novels also tell stories of women who stepped out of the domestic sphere. Ruth Hall by Willies (or Fanny Fern) narrates an alternative domestic role outside the “closet“.[65] The story is about Ruth who, after the death of her husband, struggles with poverty but escapes it through hard work and eventually ends up as a successful writer despite nagging voices and the exhausting task of raising and nurturing her children. It could be read as the first novel that granted women the American dream; just like A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry did for the black population.[66] The important fact is that Ruth’s main incentive for success was being able to support her children, not sole economical interest. The successful crossing of sentimentalism and realism destroys dichotomies. The economic world that once belonged to the male sphere is not opposed to domesticity anymore but intersects with it. Evidently, the walls of domestic confinements are continuously turning impenetrable, but there is something else quite physical that has constrained women until today: the female body.

Part Three: Body constrains, body contains

Anna Nicole Smith was a charming Southern girl – until she got fat. In The Strange Case of Anna Nicole Smith (2005), Jeffrey A. Brown investigates the changing public perception of Smith from a beauty idol to a white trash stereotype and illustrates how the female body is deeply intertwined with cultural public assessments.[67] The concept of the body is no longer just the concept of a biological form but something that has a whole set of cultural meanings attached to it. Elizabeth Grosz asserts that “since the inception of philosophy as a separate and self-contained discipline in ancient Greek, philosophy has established itself on the foundations of a profound somatophobia“[68], that is the fear of body. As already discussed in Part One, the use of dichotomies in Western philosophy tradition is prevalent and has subordinated the body to the mind which was further reified by Christianity that associated the human body with animality and evilness.[69]

The pejorative attitude towards the body in Western philosophy led to the corporeal projection onto women, who were then equated with the body whereas men identified themselves with the mind.[70] Grosz further posits that “philosophy has surreptitiously excluded femininity and ultimately women, from its practices through its usually implicit coding of femininity with the unreason associated with the body“.[71] Consequently, women have continuously been reduced to their bodies and victimized by superiorly possession. As discussed in Part Two, women, African Americans and other marginalized Americans could only express their thoughts through writing and they did so because it was the only way to “escape encumbering narratives attached to their bodies“.[72] In marriage they were in possession of their husband being the feme covert with no other possibilities, as pre-weds the good of their family and as pregnant women, possessed by Christ.[73]

Karen Sanchez-Eppler points out that the term “domestic slavery“ accurately exposes the contradictions and asymmetries inherent in the comparison of women.[74] Therefore the body embodied by women was something solely to be owned. The nightmare of its reverse, which was extensively expressed in Indian captivity narratives as well as slave narratives, ultimately becomes reality in the Sentimental Novel.[75] Especially in Charlotte Temple and The Coquette the game of power between possessing and being possessed by the body becomes the focal point of womenhood whereas pregnancy acts as means of bodily capture. Essentially, the protagonists’ bodies are not captivated by an outside force but the body itself. Charlotte and Eliza who are targets of seduction are later dispersed from the confidence of self-government and are ultimately possessed by the powerful physical change of their body that undergirds their wills and leads both protagonists to death.[76] The eighteenth century’s fear of captivity resonates in the form of pregnancy that overwhelms any realization of self-possession and consequently ends in self-immolation and the weakness of the self. As mentioned before, Degler contends that the fall of the birth rate indicates the change of women in society and specifically a change of power over one’s own body and its liberation from it that later epitomizes in the works of Diana di Prima.[77]

Shirley Samuels posits that sentimentality acts in conjunction with the problem of the body and how cultural and social meanings are determined through their differential embodiments.[78] The feminist and abolitionist discourse in sentimental texts lay ground to body politics. As discussed in Part Two the death of Tom was merely seen as a sign of weakness but considering the points above, this sentimental strategy rescues him from the unfortunate confinements that the fact of having a body entails. Hence, sentimentality is here depicted as means to escape the constraints of the body and all rules and roles that are intricately written onto the body. Granted, that this way of escape seems to be an “inadequate remedy,“[79] sentimental novelists, in fact, expose bodies. I suggest, that exposing bodies through the death of children, women and slaves equates them with the male national body because it demonstrates that they as well suffer from the body and are therefore not ought to be equated with it. Thus, sentimentalism, at large, tries to break down dichotomies and shall not be seen in opposition but as a bridge. This is crucial for the following discussion on empathy, compassion and moral philosophy.

Part Four: Detachment

The position or disposition of the sentimental is determined by its gendered and racialized affiliation, or after Pierre Bourdieu, the “habitus“ of sentimentality.[80] This can be traced back to the dichotomies discussed above: female writers / male intellectuals, sentiments / rationalism, inner space / outer space, body / mind, the Other / male national body space and female / male, whereas the latter was usually seen superior to the former. Friedrich Schiller argues that we struggle with our irrational side because we respond to a system that aims to be rational and further suggests that the task of modern culture is to restore its harmony with nature, for the fact that we are severely detached from it. Nature is, Schiller contends, innocence seen in children and thereby refers to the simplicity that seems to get lost in the process of growing up.[81] Rousseau’s state of nature is more drastic in that the individual is peaceful, independent, lacking in thought and feeling but there is one primary feeling Rousseau believes to be the root of all later feelings, compassion.[82] Stowe also attempts to “go back to basics“ by stressing the importance of the family and the love within it.[83] Rousseau gives an image of his idea of compassion which in fact resembles the “psychology of sentimental narration“.[84] He describes the tragic image

of an imprisoned man who sees, through his window, a wild beast tearing a child from its mother’s arms, breaking its frail limbs with murderous teeth, and cawing its quivering entrails. What horrible agitation seizes him as he watches the scene which does not concern him personally! What anguish he suffers from being powerless to help the fainting mother and the dying child.[85]

The parting of family members is also depicted in Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which she equates slavery with the destruction of the family; that is the only source of institutionalized compassion and sole social model for the relations of non-equal members of society. Stowe employs this image to remind the reader of the fundamental social example of compassion which, Fisher declares, is the correct moral relation of the strong to the weak. Rousseau’s image of the prisoner who is not personally involved but wishes to help regardless, depicts generous compassion which is, he further asserts, a species-preserving feeling opposed to those that only intend survival of the self.[86] In Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902), Peter Kropotkin argues that the Darwinian concept has undermined cooperation as a survival strategy and asserts that social Darwinists have misinterpreted the notion of the fittest.[87] Kropotkin further states that indeed „there is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species; there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defense […] Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle“.[88]

In sum, the sharing of sentiments leads to compassion. Thus, sentimentalism acts as a bridge not only between entities but individuals but the last step is yet to be taken.


While Lewinsky, Rifkin, Barry and Clohesy call for a more compassionate world, their audience might as well reply with a derogatory “no“. Similar to critics of the Sentimental Novel, the usefulness of sentimentality or empathy can often not be seen. The spheres continue to exist, albeit in different relations. Works such as Rosin’s The End of Men (2012) and Mundy’s The Richer Sex (2013)[89] continue the fashion of contrasting, dichotomies and socioeconomic Darwinism in reversed form.[90] The White (petite) bourgeois is target of amusement and “White trash“, a fashionable term – it is us against the Other to this very day. In the article „What’s wrong with Sentimentality?“ (2014) Leslie Jamison posits:

I think the way we escape the endless cycle of just back-patting ourselves for our own deep feelings is by being willing to be critical of what those feelings are and being willing to question whether those feelings are doing any good.[91]

Therefore empathy can only change society if it is followed by action; reason is therefore not left behind but acts in cooperation. However in contemporary society, as Carolyn Betensky discusses in her work Feeling for the Poor (2013), reading and knowing about the issues on this world is thought to be a social act in itself rather than a call to it.[92] Thus: to make social change means to act with an intention based on compassion by means of reason. Nothing good goes without the other.

FU Berlin, Wintersemester 2014/15

[1] Erykah Badu: Otherside of the Game. Baduizm 1997.

[2] TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a global set of conferences under the slogan “Ideas Worth Spreading“.

[3] Monica Lewinsky: The Price of Shame. (accessed on March 28, 2015).

[4] Cf. Jeremy Rifkin: The Empathic Civilization. New York: Penguin 2010.

[5] Cf. Kathleen Barry: Unmaking War, Remaking Men: How Empathy Can Reshape Our Politics, Our Soldiers and Ourselves. North Melbourne: Spinifex Press 2010.

[6] Cf. Anthony Clohesy: The Politics of Empathy: Ethics, Solidarity, Recognition. New York: Routledge 2013.

[7] Cf. Theodore Dalrymple: Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality. United Kingdom: Gibson Square Book Ltd 2010. p. 55.

[8] Cf. James Baldwin: Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press 2012. p.14. This particular sentence was used by many to describe sentimentality, along Oscar Wilde who states that a sentimentalist “is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.“ (Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other Writings. United Kingdom: Simon and Schuster 2005. p.348.).

[9] Sentimentality or sentimentalism is, by definition, the tendency to base actions and reactions from emotions and feelings opposed to reason. Cf. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English. Oxford: Oxford University Press Ed. 7 p. 1383. The Sentimental Novel which will be discussed in the following, is an 18th century literary genre which endorses on emotions. Further, sentimental novels rely on the emotional response of the reader.

[10] Cf. John L. Idol, Melinda M. Ponder: Hawthorne and Women: Engendering and Expanding the Hawthorne Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press 1999. p.21. This is Hawthorne’s inadequate description of sentimental novelists who elaborates his jealousy further in this letter to a publisher: “America is now wholly given over to a d[amne]d mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public is occupied with their trash.“ […] Generally, women write like emasculated men, and are only to be distinguished from male authors by greater feebleness and folly.“

[11] Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: Bacchus. Oil on canvas. Uffizi, Florence. 1595.

[12] Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: Truth: A History and a Guide for the Perplexed. New York: St. Martin’s Press 1997. p.96.

[13] Cf. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: Truth. pp.99.

[14] Bernard Russelll: History of Western Philosophy: Collectors Edition. London: Routledge 2013. p.38. (emphasis mine).

[15] Christopher Hitchens: Letters to a Young Contrarian.New York: Basic Books 2009. p.140.

[16] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: Lectures on the History of Philosophy: Greek Philosophy to Plato. Lincoln:University of Nebraska Press 1995. p.152.

[17] Cf. Jane Tompkins: Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860.Oxford: Oxford University Press 1985. pp. 122.

[18] Vicki Luker, Brij Lal: Telling Pacific lives: Prisms of Process. Canberra: ANU E Press 2008. p.14.

[19] Cf. Richard Volney Chase: American Novel and its Tradition. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press 1957..

[20] R. W. B Lewis: The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2009. pp 5. (emphasis by me).

[21] Jane Tompkins: Sensational Designs, p. 123.

[22] Susanna Rowson: Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1987. p. 104-108.

[23] Antonio da Correggio: Noli me tangere (1525). Oil on Canvas. Magdalena is trying to kiss Jesus’ feet after his resurrection.

[24] Jean Béraud: Mary Magdalene in the House of the Pharisee (1891). Oil on Canvas. The picture follows the tradition to depict the ‘sinful woman’ as Mary Magdalene. The ‘sinful woman’ lies weeping at Jesus’ feet. The scene takes place at a gentlemen’s dinner in 1890 Paris.

[25] Jane Tompkins: Sensational Designs. p. 124.

[26] Susanna Rowson: Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth. Boston: Charles Ewer 1824. p. 156.

[27] See Charlotte Temple, Chapter 28 A Trifling Retrospect, in which Rowson addresses the reluctance towards the overly use of emotion but asserts that this attitude is a sign for innocence. Similar how a love song suddenly gains meaning when being in love yourself.

[28] Uncle Tom’s Cabin has often been criticized by its intense stereotyping of the Black population, while also being praised as one of the main contributors to the abolition movement in the 1850s.

[29] Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. New York: Bantam Dell 2003. p. 321.

[30] Ibid, p. xi.

[31] Ibid, p. 506.

[32] Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America. New York: Allard and Saunders 1835-1840. p. 225; Tocqueville actually understood it to be a compliment.

[33] Cathy N. Davidson, Jessamyn Hatcher: No More Separate Spheres!: A Next Wave American Studies Reader. Durham: Duke University Press 2002. p. 30.

[34] Cf. Linda K. Kerber: Toward an Intellectual History of Women: Essays By Linda K. Kerber. Chapell Hill: UNC Press Books 2014. p.161.

[35] Ibid, p.161.

[36] Cf. Erik H. Erikson: “Inner and Outer Space: Reflections on Womanhood,“ in The Woman in America. Boston: Robert Jay Lifton 1965. p. 1-26. Erikson was famous for coining the term “identity crisis“ and is known for his theory on psychosocial development.

[37] Cf. Robyn R. Warhol: Gendered Interventions: Narrative Discourse in the Victorian Novel. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press 1989. p. 159.

[38] Harriet Ann Jacobs published Uncle Tom’s Cabin under the pseudonym Linda Brent. Sara Payson Willis began to use the pen name Fenny Fern when she started to publish her articles.

[39] Robyn R. Warhol: Gendered Interventions. p. 173.

[40] Harriet Jacobs: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Stilwell, KS: Digireads Publishing 2005. p. 34.

[41] Jane Tompkins: Sensational Design. p. 150.

[42] Cf. Henry David Thoureau: Walden. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Company, 1910. p. 178.

[43] Cf. R. W. B. Lewis: The American Adam. p. 204.

[44] Cf. Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecœur: Letters of an American Farmer. London: Davies & Davis 1782. Letter II.

[45] Cf. Philip Fisher: Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1985. p. 89.

[46] Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. p. 22.

[47] Friedrich Engels: “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State“ in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Selected Works in One Volume. London: Laurence and Wishart 1973. p. 488.

[48] Cf. Cathy N. Davidson, Jessamyn Hatcher: No More Separate Spheres. p. 33.

[49] Cf. James Baldwin: Notes of a Native Son. p.17. Uncle Tom became an allegory for the submissive Black individual.

[50] Jane Tompkins: Sensational Design. p.126.

[51] Philip Fisher: Hard Facts. p. 95.

[52] Ann Douglas: “The Domestication of Death“ in The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1977. p. 201.

[53] Ibid, p. 203.

[54] Mary Berth Norton: Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800. Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1996. p.45. See Sylvia Plath’s poem Lesbos, especially line 35-38 for time-crossing comparison.

[55] Though, Plath and Friedan take a step further by reverting to national socialistic themes to describe their domestic life/ anxiety.

[56] Hannah Webster Foster: The Coquette. New York: Penguin Books 1996. p. 123.

[57] Ibid, p. 126.

[58] Mary Berth Norton: Liberty’s Daughters. p.75.

[59] Cf. Cathy N. Davidson: Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. Oxford University Press 2004. p. 116.

[60] Ibid, p. 117.

[61] Ibid, p. 117.

[62] Ibid, p. 29.

[63] Ibid, p. 139.

[64] “The personal is political“ later becomes the slogan of second-wave feminist and a student movement in the late 1960s. The origin is unknown.

[65] Fanny Fern: Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present Time. New York: Mason Brothers 1854.

[66] Lorraine Hansberry: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. New York: Vintage 2004.

[67] Jeffrey A Brown: “Class and Feminine Excess: The Strange Case of Anna Nicole Smith“ in Feminist Review. Vol. 81. Nr. 1. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan 2005. pp. 74-94.

[68] Cited in Izabella Kimak: Bicultural Bodies: A Study of South Asian American Women’s Literature. Frankfurt: Peter Lang 2013. p. 31.

[69] Bryan S. Turner: The Body and Society: Explorations in Social Theory. London: Sage 2008. p. 89. In biblical terms, the body was seen as something that kept the soul from god.

[70] Cited in Izabella Kimak: Bicultural Bodies. p. 32.

[71] Cited in Ibid, p. 32.

[72] Cf. Anne Mae Duane: “Susanna Rowson, Hannah Webster Foster, and the seduction novel in the early US“ in The Cambridge History of the American Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2011. p. 41

[73] Pregnancy was thought to be god’s punishment for the sin of both man and women. However women were those who visibly displayed it.

[74] Karen Sánchez-Eppler: “Bodily Bonds: The Intersecting Rhetorics of Feminism and Abolition“ in Shirley Samuels: The Culture of Sentiment : Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in 19th-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997. p.109.

[75] Cf. Anne Mae Duane: “Susanna Rowson, Hannah Webster Foster, and the seduction novel in the early US.“ p. 49.

[76] Ibid, p. 46.

[77] See Diane di Prima: Memoirs of a Beatnik. New York: Pinguin Books 1998. Especially the subchapter Fuck the Pill. Diane di Prima (August 6, 1934) is an American poet and participated in the Beat movement..

[78] Cf. Shirley Samuel: The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in 19th-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997. p.5.

[79] Ibid, p. 5.

[80] Ibid, p. 6. Samuels is using Bourdieu‘s term „habitus“ here. See: Pierre Bourdieu: The Logic of Practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1990. p. 52-60.

[81] Cf. Friedrich Schiller: On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry Part I. (accessed on 30 April, 2015)

[82] Cf. Philip Fisher: Hard Facts. p. 105.

[83] Cf. Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. p.37 & p. 417. Mr. and Mrs. Shelby are talking about selling Eliza’s only son. Mrs. Shelby insists that tearing mother and son apart would “ruin body and soul“. A slave poisoned her baby to prevent herself the pain of having her child taken away from her again. Therefore the motif “mother love“ reappears throughout the novel.

[84] Philip Fisher: Hard Facts. p. 105.

[85] Ibid, p. 105.

[86] Ibid, p. 105.

[87] Peter Kropotkin: Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. London: Heinemann 1902. Chapter I. The fittest is not the individual who is the physical, economically, politically strongest, but the group with the best cooperation system. Cooperation is a feature of the most advanced organisms, leading to the development of the highest intelligence and bodily organization (e.g., ants among insects, mammals among vertebrates).

[88] Ibid, Chapter I.

[89] Cf. Hanna Rosin: The End of Men: And the Rise of Women. New York: Riverhead Hardcover 2012. and Liza Mundy: The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family. New York: Simon & Schuster 2012.

[90] I discuss this specific topic in another paper: Remapping Feminism: Interpreting the Media Discourse on the End Of Masculinity (2014).

[91] Svati Kirsten Narula. What’s wrong with Sentimentality? (accessed on April 2, 2015).

[92] Cf. Carolyn Betensky. Feeling for the Poor: Bourgeois Compassion, Social Action, and the Victorian Novel. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press 2013, p. 163.