“Sentimental Fragments” alongside Early American Novels

Bonnie Carr O’Neill
Mississippi State University

When I included “Sentimental Fragments” in a Master’s seminar on the early American novel, I knew I risked their being overshadowed or swallowed up by the longer works that were our main focus. But in using the fragments, I aimed to deepen the students’ understanding of sentimentality. Given our own culture’s premium for irony, students are perplexed by the unflinching earnestness of sentimental texts. “Sentimental Fragments” helps resolve this pedagogical challenge as it illustrates that sentimentality is a discursive mode with wide cultural appeal to both men and women and in popular media. As a bonus, my students welcomed the fragments as a refreshing change of pace from novels.

The fragments punctuated a unit in which we covered classic seduction novels: William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, and Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette. In addition to these works, the course included several picaresque novels, each of which occasionally use sentimental conventions for satiric effect. To help students understand and recognize sentimentality, I provided a refresher on the distinction between sentiment and sensibility, drawing on Janet Todd’s framing in Sensibility: An Introduction. Moreover, throughout the semester, students supplemented their literary reading with selections from Cathy Davidson’s Revolution and the Word as well as criticism of specific novels, which they selected themselves.

Since the course was a graduate seminar, I kept things pretty loose and let the discussion develop organically. Nonetheless, our discussion of the fragments tended to cover several key topics: the fragment as a form; the discursive markers of sentimentality; and thematic relationships between the fragments and our other readings. In light of our seminar’s focus on novels, my students were inevitably struck by the fragment form. They appreciated the break from the sustained narratives we had been reading; they felt that, in focusing on individual scenes, the fragments were powerful and, as one student put it, surprisingly modern. They connected the brevity of the fragments to the epistolary structure of some of the novels we were reading. Epistolary novels, like the fragments, are “not bogged down by description” or exposition; they are “efficient,” my students said. At the same time, students were conscious of the fact that the fragments had been extracted from periodicals, and they wondered what more they could learn by reading the fragments in their original contexts, alongside other texts. In a different sort of course, I would like to try an archival project in which students track down the source periodicals and reflect on just these matters in a brief paper or presentation.

The brevity of the fragment form tends to concentrate the effect of the sentimental language and tropes. Sometimes, unfamiliar language and unclear contexts made the texts opaque to my students, but when the sketches worked, they were powerful. Or, as one student said, the sentimental sketches are “very much in your face”—not subtle. They noted the use of allegorical names and doublings of characters, as well as a certain performativity of the dialogue. This last observation led one student to comment that “virtue is performative”—helpfully connecting sentimental language to themes of virtue, appearances, and intentions that we had been tracing through our discussions of works like Franklin’s Autobiography and Charlotte Temple. Likewise, the students played with the fragments’ juxtaposing natural settings with apparently unnatural events. They reasoned that, if virtue requires individuals’ control over themselves—their appetites and their actions—the performative sentimental style suggests the limits of that control, the influence of nature over human artifice, as overwhelming emotion leads to a verbal outpouring. This effect is heightened, my students noticed, in works like number 12, where the doubled figure of the young girl stretches one’s expectations of reality and intensifies the emotional experience. In the specific context of our readings, students formed a useful comparison to The Power of Sympathy where Worthy’s perception of nature shapes his understanding of events.

I can imagine that in an undergraduate-level course, I would have to help students recognize these features of sentimental writing and build on those observations, but graduate students were able to connect them to thematic and philosophical concerns of both the fragments themselves and the course as a whole. My students wanted to link the fragments to themes of cultural identity that figured into our discussion of the novels. Again, the compactness of the form seemed significant: students thought the fragments’ concentration of effect was somehow “American.” Here, I parted ways with them, highlighting the transatlantic sources for the JTO packet. From this point, we were able to revisit longer readings, like Charlotte Temple, that challenge a monocultural understanding of literary and cultural identity.

While “Sentimental Fragments” fulfilled the pedagogical purpose I had in mind, I regret that it did not serve a greater critical function in my seminar. My students did not choose to write about the fragments or reference them in their papers, and although I included them in our exams, students did not build on their initial readings. These results suggest that the fragments were, indeed, overshadowed by the novels as I thought they might be. But including them in the graduate seminar had other virtues. It helped refresh my own approach to teaching sentimental texts and literary form. My students gave me a renewed appreciation for the versatility of sentimentality: its adaptability to varying subjects and forms, they suggested, is key to sentimentality’s popular appeal. The fragment form magnifies sentimentality’s efforts to convey felt experience as the union of language and philosophy that is not quite a union of body and mind, nor of head and heart. For my students at least, the texts’ incongruities, or “weirdness,” prevent that kind of integration, but also make sentimentality recognizable as a literary discourse rather than alienating and contrived effusion.