Literary form, gender, social media, memes, and more!

Mary Caton Lingold
Virginia Commonwealth University

When I first began writing this reflection, I planned to lament that my students weren’t as interested in the formal elements of the “Sentimental Fragments” as I was. But as I sifted through my recollections of our class discussions, it became clear that they had grasped concepts of form, only in ways different, and maybe more interesting than I had intended. While I tuned into the Sentimentalist (capital S) tropes and formulas throughout the narratives, the students were more keen to make correlations between these readings and modern sentimental (little s) media cultures, and social media, in particular.

I included the “Sentimental Fragments” in an upper division survey on early American Literature to 1820 and we discussed the JTO selections over two 50 minute class periods. The material brought a welcome shift in length and tone in a course that was primarily focused on heavy questions of colonialism, empire, and race. Just before reading the “Sentimental Fragments” we had completed a lengthy unit on the US and Haitian revolutions. These conversations prepared students to think creatively about form – they compared the two nations’ declarations of independence, then we read Leonora Sansay’s epistolary Secret History, a novel that is quite fragmentary in its own right. We had also read the Twitter account @lebarondevastey, created by Marlene Daut, that serializes excerpts of the early Haitian thinker’s political and historical writing. The students commented on the pleasurable nature of reading an early American author’s work in Twitter form, explaining that it is “more digestible” that way. These observations spilled over into our reading of the relatively bite-sized JTO material, which in turn helped the students to think about Twitter and other social media platforms as our own era’s form of serialized, and often quite sentimental media culture. For instance we discussed squeezing ideas into limited characters in the same way that periodical editors would have had to squeeze (and stretch) literary content to fill out their publications, one of the utilities of the sentimental fragment, as we learned from  the enormously helpful introduction by Duncan Faherty and Ed White.

We digested the fragments in two chunks, focusing on the Introduction and first half in one class, followed by the last 10 fragments. This worked well because it enabled students to read the second set with the insights of our first discussion in mind. In my own reading of the fragments, which were completely new to me as a genre, I kept noticing the constant descriptions of weeping. While I’m familiar with the tearful mode of many a deathbed scene in a Sentimentalist novel, I found the almost cartoonish depictions of weeping in the “Sentimental Fragments” peculiar in their lack of effect. Rather than making me feel weepy as when a beloved character dies, the fragments depict characters weeping “I wept the tears of briny sorrow” (11) over and over again, often over a corpse whom we’ve had no chance to come to care about. As I shared these observations with the class, and we tried to imagine how these textual moments might have been received differently for early American readers, we found ourselves thinking about meme culture and the way that the repetition of gifs and images of characters and scenes today functions as a shorthand for all kinds of sentiments. In short, the “Sentimental Fragments” challenged us to think differently about the way we read and write in fragments in our moment.

The class’ favorite fragment, by far, was “Sentimental Perfumery,” which functions as a beauty advertisement for all the things a goodly sentimental woman should have in her toilet, including “Innocence.—A white paint, which will stand for a considerable time, if not abused. Modesty:–Very best rouge, giving a becoming bloom to the cheek,” and my favorite, “Tears of Pity:–A water, that gives lustre and brightness to the eye” (10-11). While some of the literary techniques in the packet felt somewhat ineffective to us as modern readers, this particular fragment’s play with sentimentalized beauty norms felt quite familiar to those of us well-acquainted with modern cosmetic industry. The overlaps between this mock advertisement and the actual advertising in today’s cosmetic industry were too obvious to ignore. I once used a facewash unironically called “Purity” by a brand that also sells a signature moisturizer, “Hope in a Jar.” Students drew the class’ attention to Youtube humorists who have satirized these trends mercilessly, including this mock make-up tutorial (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1HZuFmX0p5g) which lampoons the self-helpy messaging by telling viewers to use a facewash called “honesty” because “I feel like it gets rid of all those lies we tell ourselves.” This hilarious satirical contouring tutorial (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=zJaaLXZwmsU) takes it a step further, as the creator Sailor J quips, “Make-up is for women who want husbands — contouring is for women who want to leach the souls of their dead lovers, and collect the inheritance of their ex-boyfriends who disappeared under mysterious circumstances” As you might imagine, these discussions bridged beautifully into our next and final reading of the semester, Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette, to which students brought sharp inquiry into questions of gendered literary form and female agency.

One of the things I most liked about teaching the JTO text was that because I was less familiar with the material it allowed for a certain kind of openness in the classroom that made space for a transhistorical discussion. I’m generally very focused on giving my students historical context for the works we read, especially since the history of early America is so vital for understanding our world, but I think it is also productive for students to have the opportunity to bring what they know and understand about the world to historical texts from their own perspectives, and the “Sentimental Fragments” occasioned that beautifully.