Sentimental Fragments Project

Patricia Bostian
Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, NC

This spring, I taught a 4-week compressed degree section of ENG 231, American Literature I. We are a large community college with six campuses, both rural and urban, and a large online campus. This course was taught online.

To prepare for the project, which was due at the end of the four weeks, we discussed sentimentalism and the American approach to death in the 19th century, including the practice of death photography. This material was discussed in conjunction with Poe’s depiction of death in his stories.

We also read selections from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. So, even though this was a short term, students had a good introduction to sentimentalism, its characteristics, and its various functions and uses in different genres of 19th century literature.

The project itself was necessarily a brief one. [The video referenced in these instructions is available on YouTube: This video was produced in 2016 for The American Renaissance: Classic Literature of the 19th Century, a MOOC offered by Dartmouth College on edX.org. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwApTf_IBaU&list=UU6o3dK_4MVvobHtQpH3oaiQ&index=61 ]

For this project, you will be reading a selection of fragments that appeared in newspapers and magazines in the 19th century.

The genre of sentimentality was lauded and derided for the same reasons: “It was ideally suited to incite feelings in readers” and “to direct those feelings toward projects of social betterment.”

Sentimental fiction was also rejected because it popular. If a genre appealed to the masses, then surely it could not be considered “great” literature. After all, what do the masses know of literature. Low brow literature (or popular culture) aims at the lowest common denominator in terms of entertainment value, and this is how sentimentalism was viewed by scholars until, as the video states, the 1980s.

Sentimentalism was characterized as a “mawkish, simple-minded form of emotional excess brought on by overindulgence in the tender emotions of pathos and sympathy.” In other words, the author’s aim (particularly less skilled authors) was to create works that played on the readers’ emotions with exaggerated, pitiful scenes of human hardship.

One of critic Jane Thompson’s complaints was that sentimental fiction was not taken seriously in the university because it was written by women. Thompkins argues that the language of sentimentalism was an attempt to provide a woman’s point of view of the world around her—a point of view not valued by (mostly) male scholars.

However, a new concern has been raised in 21st-century scholars. We are beginning to understand that race is not a biological “thing.” Contemporary scholarship argues that race is socially constructed by our views. Literary critics are arguing that the use of sentimentality, particularly by abolitionist authors, contributed to the idea of race being a real marker of the differences between groups of people in ways that have not been positive.

Scholar Saidiya Hartman wonders if the point of sentimentalism was to make people feel better about themselves, rather than move them to help ease the plight of others. In other words, readers could tell themselves that they were moved to feel sympathy for the pain of others, and that sympathy was enough—they had done their job.

How does the sentimentalism of the fragments you have been provided play a “role of promoting projects of social and cultural reform”? Is this even a valid goal of literature? If sentimentalism does not serve any reform goals, but is its purpose?

Address these questions in a formal essay of a minimum of 1200 words (excluding the Works Cited page), using at least three of the fragments in the provided collection. You must also reference the provided introduction to Jane Tompkins’ Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860.

The project submissions were much better than anticipated with such a short time period for conclusion. Students addressed different aspects, some focusing on death, others on gender, and some on the emotionalism of the fragments. Students seemed to find the fragments interesting, but more scaffolding of the Thompkins reading would have been helpful. I am assigning this project again in an 8-week section this summer.