“Sentimental Fragments” in an Upper-Level Course

Brigitte Bailey
Dept of English, University of New Hampshire

 

This spring I brought the 20 “Sentimental Fragments” from U.S. periodicals into my senior-level course “Literature of Early America” (up to 1800). This course moves from the literature of conquest and cross-cultural contact through Puritan texts to Enlightenment-era autobiographies, slave narratives, poetry, political writings, and fiction. The semester ends with a unit on “fictions of the early Republic”—an excellent context for reading these fragments. Students had just read Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, together with Judith Sargent Murray’s “On the Equality of the Sexes” and a chapter from Cathy Davidson’s Revolution and the Word: “Privileging the Feme Covert: The Sociology of Sentimental Fiction.” They were about to read Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland.

We spent a day on the fragments. I divided the class into three discussion groups and assigned each group a focus within the fragments: 1) themes of charity, compassion, and sympathy (I suggested they look especially at numbers 1, 2, 9, 15); 2) variations on the “Maria” figure (numbers 6, 7, 19, 20); and 3) complications—i.e., fragments whose plots or characters seemed to resist interpretation or to test sentimental conventions in some way (numbers 12, 13, 17). After discussing these fragments in their groups, students reported back to the class and we had a general discussion. Given our recent focus on gender, post-Revolution separation anxiety, and the image of the family as a microcosm of society and of the nation, much of the discussion focused on issues of seduction, separation, and loss. Students noted that, as does Charlotte Temple, these texts highlight the fragility of social bonds—especially through the “Maria” figure (and similar female characters), but also through other characters made vulnerable by age or poverty. The group focusing on sympathy observed that, on the other hand, charity operated to shore up family units or, when these units were irretrievably broken, sometimes to create replacement “families.” The “Maria” group, I think, liked the “Maria” parody the best, with its over-the-top deployment of sentimental language. The “complications” group was the least certain, predictably, of what to make of their fragments—we spent some time trying to unpack the implications of number 17, the gothic “Fragment,” whose movement from the domestic “cottage” into the night and toward the “pleasures of contemplation” results in the voyeuristic depiction of the male lover’s soliloquy and (implied) suicide. One student later incorporated some discussion of the “Sentimental Fragments” into his research paper; if I had assigned the reading a little earlier in the term, more might have done so.

Including the fragments made our brief look at 1790s’ fiction more coherent, paradoxically enough. Students saw that a number of the issues these pieces raised occur both in Charlotte Temple and in Wieland and that sentimental and gothic language articulated, through the ritual repetitions of periodical publications, wide spread worries about changes in class, gender, and society. I would like to teach them again. Next time, I want to ask each student to write briefly about 1-2 fragments before our discussion and to push the conversation further by asking, for example, how does this persistent type of periodical publication complicate Enlightenment concepts of the public sphere. And I want to connect these excerpts, somehow, with a group report students give earlier in the term on the 18th-century development of newspapers and print culture. There’s a lot of potential here—I look forward to teaching them again.