A Sentimental Encounter . . . with Genre

Peter Jaros
Franklin & Marshall College

It was with some trepidation that I slotted the Sentimental Fragments into my syllabus for a 200-level course on Early American Literature: the course was already packed with a mishmash of genres, and adding another felt like pushing my luck. Still, I imagined we could use a bit of respite between the last two long works in the course: Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette and Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland. As it turns out, wedged between these two novels, with their own investments in sentiment, sensibility, and sensation, the Fragments yielded a curious pleasure.

The novels we were reading required careful tracking of narrative detail—Who was whispering to whom in the arbor? Who heard which voice when? What would he say when he heard what she said? So it was with disoriented freedom that we plunged into these serial fragments, which disposed of plot so cavalierly, spilling out backstories of lost loves and lost fortunes, or abjuring them altogether in favor of ecstatic ellipsis in order to get to the good parts: the large blue orbs, the trailing tresses, the loosened grasp, the single tear.

They loved it. They hated it. They were disoriented.

What was interesting was the thing I hadn’t quite anticipated: there is a real pleasure in the sudden rush of getting to know a genre, get disoriented by it, titillated by it, a little bored by it, privy to its in-jokes and rolling eyes at its clichés. With eighteenth-century poems or novels, I often struggled to get students to drop their preconceptions derived from 21st-century texts. But with these sentimental fragments, I got to watch them build an understanding of genre without my anxiously policing it all the time.

They also tried less hard than usual to know what was going on all the time. Why was Maria’s dear, lost Henry denied the rights of a decent interment? Why was Polydore driven to suicide for betraying the lost Maria (no—different Maria)? Why was “Sentimental Fragment,” featuring Lucilla and William, reprinted so many times? Because the fragments were themselves so sparse, even—especially?—in their oversaturated affect, there was less of the usual shame of “I should know the answer so I’m just going to look down.” Perhaps it arose from the heady freedom from named authors and well-constructed plots—that is, freedom from expecting unity or coherence. What I’m saying, I suppose, is that the fragment is a lovely medium for developing one’s negative capability, even if not in quite the way Keats imagined. We knew that we were missing information, that were supposed to be a little lost. And that let us ask questions a bit better.

While I offered students a bit of background on the changing meanings of sentiment, sensibility, and gender in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, and pointed out a few fragmentary objects—from portrait miniatures to antislavery medallions to letters—that became particularly invested with sentimental value, the real fun began when I turned students loose in small groups: pick a fragment that particularly entranced you, repelled you, confused you, or reduced you to tears” and devote some time to observing its formal and generic features. With a different genre—a “higher” genre, like an unfamiliar poetic form—such open-endedness might have been daunting, but there was something quite inviting about the collection of fragments that allowed students to trust their instincts with the texts they’d surveyed. They knew the habits, the tricks, the moves of this form, and they were smart about the ways they were mobilized.

The insights and hypotheses flowed, but what really surprised me was the way that the fragments opened up the affective range of class discussion: students expressed sympathy with abandoned victims of seduction (and reserved special rage, particularly after reading The Coquette, for blithe seducers); they expressed boredom and exasperation at the same tired tropes trotted out again; they offered knowing shrugs when a charitably dispensed coin was supposed to efface the preceding three pages of heartbreak; they rolled their eyes at the ways a misty and elliptical plot could nonetheless police gender roles with painful clarity. So: the sentimental (and antisentimental) tone of the conversation that ranged from fragment to fragment—a range that followed us into the delights and exasperations of Brown’s Wieland in the class sessions that followed—that was the surprising payoff of this mystery bundle.