Thinking about the Conventions of Popular Literature and Sentimental Fiction

Melissa Adams-Campbell
Northern Illinois University


This semester my early American literature students (mostly English majors with a couple of Honors students from other disciplines and a history major) spent considerable time thinking about popular literature and sentimental fiction. They had previously read three digitized dime novels (one together and two on their own) as well as Susanna Rowson’s little-known first American-authored novel, Trials of the Human Heart (1795) before ending the semester with JTO’s “Sentimental Fragments.” In this respect, they were fairly well primed to consider this fascinating assemblage of emotionally-charged texts; however, they were far less certain about what to do with the fragment as literary form.

In approaching popular early fiction or texts outside of the canon, I have found it useful to assign students to pre-read excerpts from the introduction to Jane Tompkins’s Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860.  Giving students some time to consider how literary canons are formed, how and why some works of literature are deemed “great,” how those standards have evolved over time, and how and why we might want to read other things is truly a worthwhile classroom endeavor.  JTO has inspired me to do much more of this kind of work in my classrooms.  My fellow JTO blogger Jon Blanford offers a practical account of how to get students writing formally and informally about these issues here.

We began with a short discussion of the goals and purpose of JTO, after which I asked students to work in small groups to create a list of conventions in sentimental writing. They were encouraged to draw examples from “Fragments” as well as Trials, which we had just finishedStudents were instructed to consider: character types and character names; plot devices; any specific repetitions of diction across these texts as well as more generically describing the kind of diction employed, sentence styles, punctuation, etc.; mood / tone; any other noteworthy observations.

After reporting these findings we had a large group discussion about the fragment as literary form, beginning with simple questions: What is a fragment? What does a physical fragment of text look like?  From there we explored literary fragments as purposefully created “pieces” of a larger missing or absent whole: How does a literary fragment work?  What does it do? How does it work as a form? Why would an author wish to write in this form? [Note: I had planned to talk about “Sentimental Fragments” and other Romantic period fragments and “found” texts of this era, but I skipped this part of my lesson to ensure ample time for our concluding activity.]

After this preliminary thinking, we combined our growing knowledge of the fragment as form with our previous understandings of the emotional work of sentimental conventions. I asked, what is the relationship between the short length of these pieces and their highly charged emotional style and content?  What are some differences between encountering these short pieces in an early American periodical mixed in among news, editorials, poetry, advertisements, etc. versus reading a dense sentimental novel in two volumes such as Trials? Finally, how might we compare the many reprintings of these fragments (as noted in the headnotes) with today’s viral media consumption (are these the equivalent of cute kitten videos)?

Because we had spent a considerable part of the semester thinking about the “cultural work” (ala Jane Tomkins) of popular literature and other writing with “designs” on the reader (in Tompkins’ sense of the term) such as abolitionist slave narratives by Equiano and others, we had a good discussion about whether or not sentimental literature produces social change, or to use today’s language, effects social justice.

Students generally allowed that sentiment could produce social change, while I pointed how certain fragments (especially the first two) rendered relief for the poor a personal duty enacted in a case by case situation rather than advocating for any systematic social welfare system or institutional safety net.  Is the language of individual action inspired by right feeling the same as social justice? Why or why not?

Finally, I returned students to their small groups for what I hoped would be a fun closing activity. I asked each group to collaboratively write their own sentimental fragment incorporating elements from their previously constructed lists of sentimental conventions and knowledge of the readings.  Students could choose to write a straightforward sentimental fragment or a satirical one such as the last excerpt included in the JTO collection.

My students were a bit reluctant to take on the task of creative writing, but there was a LOT of laughing going on during the ten minutes they had to write.  One group set their fragment in a contemporary setting, and effectively brushed bits of contemporary language up against Romantic period sentimental diction.  Another set their modern day tale around a patient dying in a hospital.  Others went for stereotyped character descriptions of “golden ringlets” and hyper-feminized women characters; while yet another group started their story collectively and then each took a turn writing a sentence without sharing their individual contributions until the end.

We spent a few more minutes reading these spontaneous creations out loud and talking about what we learned as writers of sentimental fragments.  I asked, what sentimental conventions did you engage in your story? What emotions did you hope to inspire in readers of your fragment (beyond the initial laughter!)? How easy was it to write a fragment once you understood the conventions?  This activity confirmed how much students had learned about how sentiment works by actually producing a sentimental work for themselves.

In hindsight I would probably spend two days on these texts (my classes are one hour and fifteen minutes each), beginning day one with the list of conventions and the collaborative write-your-own-fragment activities, saving the more serious discussions of form, Romantic period literary connections, and questions of social change for day two (although I can also see the benefit of reversing this order).  Overall, my students and I had a lot of fun discussing these texts; I would definitely teach “Sentimental Fragments” again.