Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Twentieth-Century Sentimentalism

Twentieth-Century Sentimentalism: Narrative Appropriation in American Literature

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 256
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Twentieth-Century Sentimentalism
    Book Description:

    Today's critical establishment assumes that sentimentalism is an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary mode that all but disappeared by the twentieth century. In this book, Jennifer Williamson argues that sentimentalism is alive and well in the modern era. By examining working-class literature that adopts the rhetoric of "feeling right" in order to promote a proletarian or humanist ideology as well as neo-slave narratives that wrestle with the legacy of slavery and cultural definitions of African American families, she explores the ways contemporary authors engage with familiar sentimental clichés and ideals.

    Williamson covers new ground by examining authors who are not generally read for their sentimental narrative practices, considering the proletarian novels of Grace Lumpkin, Josephine Johnson, and John Steinbeck alongside neo-slave narratives written by Margaret Walker, Octavia Butler, and Toni Morrison. Through careful close readings, Williamson argues that the appropriation of sentimental modes enables both sympathetic thought and systemic action in the proletarian and neo-slave novels under discussion. She contrasts appropriations that facilitate such cultural work with those that do not, including Kathryn Stockett's novel and filmThe Help. The book outlines how sentimentalism remains a viable and important means of promoting social justice while simultaneously recognizing and exploring how sentimentality can further white privilege.Sentimentalism is not only alive in the twentieth century. It is a flourishing rhetorical practice among a range of twentieth-century authors who use sentimental tactics in order to appeal to their readers about a range of social justice issues. This book demonstrates that at stake in their appeals is who is inside and outside of the American family and nation.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-6299-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    Contemporary beliefs about sentimentalism or “the sentimental” are that sentimentalism is an outdated mode of appealing to readers and to the general public. This opinion is largely influenced by the cultural sway of twentieth-century modernism, which asserted that sentimentalism portrays emotion that lacks reality or depth, falling flat in its attempts to depict real life and achieving only feminine melodrama. However, narrative claims to feeling—particularly those based in common and recognizable forms of suffering—have remained popular throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Contemporary authors continue to portray the struggles of working-class families to survive economic hardships as well...

  5. 2 Grace Lumpkin’s To Make My Bread: Standing Together, Side by Side
    (pp. 23-58)

    Published in 1932, inspired by the events of the 1929 textile mill strikes in Gastonia, North Carolina,¹ Grace Lumpkin’sTo Make My Breadwas praised by reviewers as both a “beautiful and sincere novel” and “very good, very effective propaganda” (Vorse, Review, 104; Cantwell, Review, 372). In his critique of the novel, Roy Flanagan observes that “Miss Lumpkin writes well and honestly, and her book provides horrible but salutary instruction from beginning to end” (Review, 560). Another reviewer in theNew York Timesdefends Lumpkin against common criticisms leveled against proletarian writers for being overly didactic by arguing that “[i]t...

  6. 3 Josephine Johnson’s Now in November: Not Plough-Shares but People
    (pp. 59-86)

    Josephine Johnson was just twenty-four years old when she submitted the manuscript ofNow in Novemberto her editor, Clifton Fadiman at Simon and Schuster, in the summer of 1934. It was her first novel, and Johnson was still a student at Washington University in St. Louis. She had been an aspiring writer since her childhood in Kirkwood, Missouri. From the early 1930s, her stories and poems began appearing in national magazines, and based on the strength of her early writing, multiple publishers courted Johnson for her first book-length project.Now in Novemberappeared in September 1934 to a great...

  7. 4 Caretaking, Domesticity, and Gender in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: “His Home Is Not the Land”
    (pp. 87-111)

    John Steinbeck is arguably the best-known proletarian author of the twentieth century. The 1962 Nobel laureate’s novels about the Depression era have remained a cultural touchstone for generations of readers, and the current economic downturn has renewed interest in his work among the general public. Television news pundits make frequent references toThe Grapes of Wrath, his 1939 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, when they discuss the current housing crisis and the families who suffer foreclosure, while a farm policy group argues that the ongoing Texas drought could herald the next Dust Bowl and headlines its materials with the question: “The...

  8. 5 Margaret Walker’s Jubilee: “Forged in a Crucible of Suffering”
    (pp. 112-126)

    WhenJubileewas first published in 1966, it was hailed as a welcome addition to the Civil War novel genre. Winner of the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award, it was described on its dust jacket as “inevitably being called the NegroGone with the Wind,” a comparison that would today be troubling. It not only invited Margaret Mitchell’s vast readership to pay attention to Margaret Walker’s work, but it also suggested thatJubileeoffered an alternative perspective to white Civil War fiction narratives, which had previously been all that was available.Jubilee, however, did far more than just offer a...

  9. 6 Octavia Butler’s Kindred: “My Face Too Was Wet with Tears”
    (pp. 127-146)

    Octavia Butler is arguably best known for her novelKindred, published in 1979. She was the first African American woman to make a name for herself writing science fiction and remains one of the few African American writers—along with Samuel R. Delany—to have achieved success in the field. After developing a love of reading and an interest in science fiction as a child, Butler was inspired to try her hand at writing after watching a bad science fiction movie on television and deciding that she could write something better herself. Over the course of her career, she published...

  10. 7 Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “Feeling How It Must Have Felt to Her Mother”
    (pp. 147-185)

    In a scathing 1987 review ofBeloved, Stanley Crouch angrily accuses Toni Morrison of writing melodramatic sentimental fiction that is “designed to placate sentimental feminist ideology,” making sure that “the vision of black woman as the most scorned and rebuked of the victims doesn’t weaken” (“Aunt Medea,” 67). Equally offensive to this critic is that he believes Morrison “lacks a true sense of the tragic,” and he criticizes the author for what he feels is an omission of realistic and complicating detail about experiences of slavery, such as African participation in the slave trade. Thus, Crouch asserts, Morrison “only asks...

  11. 8 Conclusion
    (pp. 186-202)

    The selection of writers offered here demonstrates that together in a way they cannot alone sentimentalism continues to be an effective means by which contemporary texts argue for social change and instruct readers to identify and sympathize with individuals generally configured as Others. It also forces today’s reader to wrestle with a nineteenth-century legacy of race, class, gender, and family ideologies that are still at the heart of American national identity. The individual family unit remains the defining metaphor of social organization for our society; therefore, the ability to extend the boundaries of that unit continues to be a powerful...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 203-212)
  13. Works Cited
    (pp. 213-226)
  14. Index
    (pp. 227-232)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 233-233)