Lust, Passion, and the Body in Sentimental Fragments from Early US Publications

Margaret A. Toth, Associate Professor of English, Manhattan College
Sydney Kukoda, Senior, English & Education major, Manhattan College
Alexzandra Tsamisis, Junior, English & Education major, Manhattan College

 

This spring I taught The American Novel to 1914: Lust, Passion, and the Body at Manhattan College. In the class, we examined such issues as how sexual desire is treated, how queer identities get defined, how affective states like passion are discursively mapped onto bodies, and how early and 19th-century U.S. fiction writers were already theorizing about the modern concept of intersectionality. While the course focuses on the history and rise of the novel as an art form in U.S. culture, I thought it would be productive to assign the Sentimental Fragments in the first unit of the course, “Sex, Seduction, and Sentiment.” The first major work we studied was Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (1791), and the fragments, I reasoned, would help introduce and contextualize key concepts that would be in play throughout the text, including the themes of lust, seduction, betrayal, and loss, the importance of familial bonds, and—given the course’s focus—the sentimental genre’s use of the body and its physical responses toward various narrative ends. Ultimately, I was unable to fit the fragments into that early unit, so instead I assigned them at the end of the semester as a way of encouraging students to review all the novels we had studied. They were invited to submit an optional, extra credit paper on the fragments in which they identified common narrative themes and formal patterns and drew connections between the fragments and the works we examined.

As I anticipated, students used the fragments to further their understanding of Rowson’s text. But they also applied the pieces to other major works from our course, particularly Julia Ward Howe’s The Hermaphrodite (date unknown)[1] and Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900). In what follows, two students, Sydney Kukoda and Alexzandra Tsamisis, and I together reflect not just on the fragments’ value for contextualizing a contemporary work like Charlotte Temple but also on how the tropes within the fragments appear in the later works. In other words, the fragments are an effective pedagogical tool for understanding late 18th and early 19th century novels, but that is not their only value; applied to a later work like Howe’s The Hermaphrodite, they can reveal the potential of sentimental tropes for writers seeking to disrupt normative identity constructs.

–M. Toth

 

The Sentimental Fragments complemented our course themes of lust, passion, and the body in several ways, primarily by portraying the repercussions of sex outside of marriage, the loss of virginity or purity, and sexual and emotional rejection. One common set piece in the fragments features a woman facing the consequences of losing her innocence to a man out of wedlock, and, as such, there are clear connections to the titular character’s experiences in Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple. For example, “Maria, A Fragment; Founded on Fact,” could have been lifted right off the pages of Rowson’s novel. It describes the shock, grief, and physical deterioration Maria endures upon learning that her seducer, in whom she has invested a “misplaced confidence,” is “perfidious” (“Sentimental Fragments,” 9). Both Maria’s situation and the language used to described it bear a striking resemblance to Charlotte Temple. Echoing Charlotte’s belated understanding of Montraville, Maria thinks, “But who could have suspected that villainy possessed the bosom of one, whose every look, every action appeared the offspring of the purest virtue—of the most tender sensibility?” ((“Sentimental Fragments,” 9). Maria also, like Charlotte, laments the pain she has caused her parents and sinks into death while in the act of supplication. Moreover, Maria’s lover, like Montraville, repents his actions. Kneeling “by the side of the angel whom he had corrupted and destroyed,” he “sigh[s],” “rave[s],” and “bitterly” weeps before ultimately taking his life by “plunging” his sword into his “breast” ((“Sentimental Fragments,” 9). Montraville also falls on his knees at Charlotte’s grave, begging Mr. Temple to kill him: “Here is my bosom. I bare it to receive the stroke I merit. Strike—strike now, and save me from the misery of reflexion” (88). However, Mr. Temple refuses, reasoning that a life of painful deliberation is a more apt punishment, and Montraville “to the end of his life [is] subject to severe fits of melancholy,” routinely visiting Charlotte’s grave (89).

In this and other similar fragments, the authors attempt to reach the audience on a highly emotive level and draw forward bodily reactions such as tears, gasps of shock, and the feeling of being faint. This isn’t limited solely to the seduction tales—for instance, “The Poor Old Man—A Fragment” similarly displays intense emotion and invites the reader to partake in it. But this narrative move is particularly effective in the seduction fragments, as it advances their overtly didactic goals: in other words, these are cautionary tales with clear lessons about pursuing illicit erotic desires. The didacticism emerges in slightly different ways in other fragments, including “Elinor, a Sentimental Sketch.” Here Elinor relates a tale of grief to an auditor—the narrator of the fragment—before dying. The narrator, a male, responds by falling “on the earth beside her corpse” and sobbing. His final reflection—“I was a man—and I gloried in my tears!—” ((“Sentimental Fragments,” 17)—teaches readers, irrespective of gender or sex identity, that emotional responses are morally beneficial. This recalls the mini-episode in Charlotte Temple when Mr. Eldridge recounts his tragic familial history to Mr. Temple. When he weeps and then expresses shame for being unmanly, Mr. Temple responds that “the truly brave soul is tremblingly alive to the feelings of humanity” (13). In other words, the fragments, as with Charlotte Temple, remind us that sentimental tales, especially cautionary seduction narratives, are pedagogical tools designed not solely for young female readers. They also teach their male readership about proper conduct, honor, and the ethical merits of affect.

Indeed, while not exclusive to the sentimental genre, literary devices like dramatic irony, hyperbole, allegory, and personification all get expertly employed in both the fragments and Charlotte Temple to create intense emotional investment on the part of readers and thereby effectively convey their lessons. A perhaps more subtle lesson imparted in the fragments has to do with inaction or indecisiveness, especially in the face of temptation. Marion Rust, in “What’s Wrong With Charlotte Temple?,” persuasively argues that Rowson’s novel is less a racy seduction tale motivated by Charlotte’s “lust” and more an account of her tragic inability to make clear decisions: “far from depicting Charlotte’s overweening desire, the novel portrays the fatal consequences of a woman’s inability to want anything enough to motivate decisive action” (496). We see a similar logic at work in the aforementioned “Maria” fragment, when Maria warns her reader, “May she have it impressed upon her mind that ‘she who hesitates is lost’” ((“Sentimental Fragments,” 9, emphasis original). The fragments, then, beautifully, but perhaps not surprisingly, help illuminate the themes and didactic impulses at work in late eighteenth-century novels like Charlotte Temple or Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797).

We also, and more surprisingly, identified several connections between the Sentimental Fragments and later works, including Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars and Howe’s The Hermaphrodite. These novels disrupt the sentimental genre’s typical valorization of whiteness (Chesnutt) and heteronormativity (Howe), making the parallels to the earlier fragments all the more compelling. Since scholars have usefully identified, and complicated, nineteenth-century African-American writers’ complex engagement with sentimental tropes[2], we focus here on Howe’s underexamined text. A remarkable and even radical mid-nineteenth-century exploration of sexual identity, Howe’s novel is narrated in the first person by Laurence, an intersexual individual whose cold and abusive parents determine to raise them male.[3] Howe accords Laurence traits of both a hero and heroine—often couching her descriptions within the discourse of sentiment—with the ultimate goal of exploding binaristic, and highly restrictive, sex and gender categories.

Laurence presents as male for most of their life and feels most—though never fully—at home in that identity. Midway through Book 2 of the novel, they determine to pass as a woman, but under duress rather than by choice. While the disguise accords Laurence protection from their father, who is seeking to locate and institutionalize them, Laurence clearly feels discomfort in their new role. Howe captures this conflict through an extended militaristic metaphor: “What will you say to me, fair reader, if I present myself before you in feminine masquerade, stockaded with buckram and cotton, hanging out the veil, that feminine banner of deceit, upon a tower . . . some six feet in height, and with a wide moat of emptiness between the outer curtain of my entrenchments, and the inner inexpungable [sic] fortress of myself” (130). In this disguise, a type of armor that paradoxically protects Laurence’s “inner self” while alienating them from it, Laurence stays as a guest at the home of their friend Berto’s three sisters. The women’s clothing remains intolerable to Laurence well into Book 3, until the moment that they shed it. “Disencumbered” of “foreign” trappings, Laurence allows their chest to expand and takes “unfeminine strides” across their room. Once Laurence puts back on their former male garb, they and Berto wildly trample upon and incinerate the female clothing, the “bondage of petticoats” (187) that serves as clear symbol of women’s social imprisonment throughout this part of the novel.

While Laurence’s rejection of “femininity” occurs at an overt level in these passages, Book 3 also performs more subtle—and contradictory—work, namely, Laurence’s alignment with one of Berto’s sisters, Nina, and, indirectly, with many of the female figures in the Sentimental Fragments. Nina, like multiple women in the fragments, is deeply devoted to a man who has traveled overseas and is presumed dead. By the time Laurence visits the household, she has slipped into a type of catatonic state in order to commune with her absent lover. In an ekphrastic episode, Laurence and the sisters read a manuscript—embedded in full by Howe—about a similarly devoted woman, Eva, who has lost her true love, Rafael. All of these characters—Nina in the novel, Eva in the manuscript within the novel, and figures like Maria, Elinor, Delia in the fragments—represent steadfast devotion and loyalty as well as a sort of pastoral spirituality. As they tend their lovers’ graves, they become one with the natural world around them, with Eva, for example, befriending a dove, and Maria, in “Maria—A Fragment,” sheltering a robin in her windowsill that eases her “sorrows” and listens to her “enumerate thy master’s virtues” ((“Sentimental Fragments,” 8). These characters often risk becoming social pariahs, viewed as witches (Eva), wild or feral (Elinor), or mentally unsound (Nina and Delia). But both the novel and the fragments send a clear positive message about a love so pure and deep that not even death can overcome the bond shared by two true lovers.

Laurence spends the entire novel painfully and even agonizingly alienated from others because of their sex and gender identity. And yet these sentiments about love and spiritual connections that transcend the physical world are ones that they respond to in profound ways. In fact, of all the other characters in the novel, they feel most akin to Nina, who is “so deaf, dumb, and blind of body, so far-seeing and intelligent of soul. Dream-rapt, isolated from the actual world, half corpse, half angel . . .” (158). Therefore, while Laurence despises the outward guise of femininity, they feel an intense affinity with the feelings expressed by this familiar female archetype of sentimental fiction. In fact, this is just one of many ways in which Howe demonstrates that gender is a social construct and works to break down gender and sex binaries. At the end of the novel, when the dying Laurence is examined by a doctor, Howe’s revolutionary project is at its most forceful. Berto and his sister Briseida insist that the doctor say whether Laurence is “most masculine or most feminine” (194), with Berto claiming Laurence as a man and Briseida claiming Laurence as a woman. The siblings make their cases based on stereotypes of gender that are common in sentimental fiction. Berto, for example, states that Laurence has “stern notions of duty” (194), while Briseida says that Laurence’s “modesty,” “purity,” and “tenderness of heart”—not to mention their frequent blushing and crying—“belong only to a woman” (195). The Medicus, however, responds that he “cannot pronounce Laurent[4] either man or woman,” but “shall speak most justly if I say he is rather both than neither” (195). Howe’s mobilization of sentimental tropes in various (and occasionally incongruous) ways have been building toward this climactic moment, a moment in which an authoritative figure—it’s no accident that a doctor makes this radical pronouncement—refuses to label Laurence.

Studying these fragments in our course allowed us to work with more materials that demonstrate how concepts such as seduction and the body’s somatic responses were reflected in early U.S. literature. The fragments also allowed us to see how the novels we examined with were both rooted in and occasionally ahead of their time.

 

NOTES

[1] This unfinished novel was rediscovered and published in the twenty-first century. Gary Williams estimates that Howe began it “in the winter of 1846-1847” (x).

[2] See studies by Francis Smith Foster, Hazel Carby, Claudia Tate, and P. Gabrielle Foreman, among others.

[3] We decided as a class to use the generic pronoun when referring to Laurence. Laurence is intersexual, meaning that they were born with both male and female sex characteristics.

[4] Howe occasionally refers to Laurence as Laurent, especially in the later sections of the manuscript.

 

WORKS CITED

Howe, Julia Ward. The Hermaphrodite, U of Nebraska P, 2004.

Rowson, Susanna. Charlotte Temple, edited by Marion Rust, Norton Critical Edition, 2010.

Rust, Marion. “What’s Wrong with Charlotte Temple?” Charlotte Temple, edited by Marion Rust, Norton Critical Edition, 2010, pp. 493-509.

“Sentimental Fragments from Early US Publications.” Prepared by Duncan Faherty and Ed White. Just Teach One. Web.

Williams, Gary. “Speaking with the Voices of Others,” The Hermaphrodite, U of Nebraska P, 2004, pp. ix-xlvi.