Sentimental Collaborations

Mourning and Middle-Class Identity in Nineteenth-Century America

Sentimental Collaborations

New Americanists

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Book Pages: 304 Illustrations: 4 illustrations Published: June 2000

American Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

During the 1992 Democratic Convention and again while delivering Harvard University’s commencement address two years later, Vice President Al Gore shared with his audience a story that showed the effect of sentiment in his life. In telling how an accident involving his son had provided him with a revelation concerning the compassion of others, Gore effectively reconstructed himself as a typical, middle-class American for whom sympathy can lead to salvation. This contemporary reiteration of mid-nineteenth-century American sentimental discourse proves to be a fruitful point of departure for Mary Louise Kete’s argument that sentimentality has been an important and recurring form of cultural narrative that has helped to shape middle-class American life.
Many scholars have written about the sentimental novel as a primarily female genre and have stressed its negative ideological aspects. Kete finds that in fact many men—from writers to politicians—participated in nineteenth-century sentimental culture. Importantly, she also recovers the utopian dimension of the phenomenon, arguing that literary sentimentality, specifically in the form of poetry, is the written trace of a broad cultural discourse that Kete calls “sentimental collaboration”—an exchange of sympathy in the form of gifts that establishes common cultural or intellectual ground. Kete reads the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Lydia Huntley Sigourney with an eye toward the deployment of sentimentality for the creation of Americanism, as well as for political and abolitionist ends. Finally, she locates the origins of sentimental collaboration in the activities of ordinary people who participated in mourning rituals—writing poetry, condolence letters, or epitaphs—to ease their personal grief.
Sentimental Collaborations significantly advances prevailing scholarship on Romanticism, antebellum culture, and the formation of the American middle class. It will be of interest to scholars of American studies, American literature, cultural studies, and women’s studies.


“Such is the reach of Kete’s scholarship that it succeeds in illuminating both the private experience of grief in American families and the public constitution of a national middle-class culture. It does so through a sophisticated reconceptualization of the forms and functions of sentimentalism in poetry and fiction.” — Robert Gross, College of William and Mary

“This book is an original and compelling study of a highly significant but largely neglected tradition of American poetry. More than that, it is a brilliant revaluation of the central role of sentimentality (in fiction as well as poetry) in the construction of nineteenth-century American middle-class culture. The result is a major work in the field of American Studies that has sweeping and important implications for the related fields of feminist and gender studies, and for cultural studies generally.” — Sacvan Bercovitch, Harvard University


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Mary Louise Kete is Assistant Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Vermont.

Table of Contents Back to Top

Introduction: The Forgotten Language of Sentimentality

Part One: The “Language Which May Never Be Forgot”

1. Harriet Gould’s Book: Description and Provenance

2. “We Shore These Fragments against Our Ruin”

Part Two: Sentimental Collaborations: Mourning and the American Self

3. “And Sister Sing the Song I Love”: Circulation of the Self and Other within the Stasis of Lyric

4. The Circulation of the Dead and the Making of the Self in the Novel

Part Three: The Competition of Sentimental Nationalisms: Lydia Sigourney and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

5. The Competition of Sentimental Nationalism

6. The Other American Poets

Part Four: Mourning Sentimentality in Reconstruction-Era America: Mark Twain’s Nostalgic Realism

7. Invoking the Bonds of Affection: Tom Sawyer and America’s Morning

8. Mourning America’s Morning: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Epilogue: Converting Loss to Profit: Collaborations of Sentiment and Speculation

Appendix 1: Harriet Gould’s Book

Appendix 2: Addenda to Harriet Gould’s Book


Selected Bibliography


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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2471-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2435-5
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