The term “sentiment” marks the recognition that emotions are social and historical. Feelings seem personal and interior—yet it is often easy to see that they are structured and shared. “Sentiment,” “sentimental,” and “sentimentality” are used at moments when the entanglement of the subjective and the public is implicitly or explicitly acknowledged. This entanglement makes them vexed and value-laden categories. They have a complex range of uses in everyday language and have been the focus of much debate in American studies and cultural studies.
Discussions of sentiment always depend on concepts of emotion—itself a poorly understood phenomenon. When I am moved, the experience is anchored in my body: tears come to my eyes or my heart beats faster, my skin ﬂushes or my stomach roils. These physiological responses are emotion’s most intimate aspect and at the same time its least individual, because they are common to all humans and in some cases can be observed in other animals. Sensations become emotions, however, only as they are played out in the theater of the brain. They come into being through, and their meaning is mediated by, language and memory. We can understand emotions as “embodied thoughts” (M. Rosaldo 1984, 143). This makes sense, but it also might lead us to ask whether there can be disembodied thoughts. Arguably all human cognition must be oriented by the sense of an implicated self. Indeed, neurologists tell us that individuals with brain injuries that impair emotions also have trouble making sensible choices; they apparently cannot understand what is at stake in their decisions (Damasio 1994). Emotion appears to be fundamental to all mental life, infused in all thought.
Thus, definitions of “sentiment” that equate it with emotion, as opposed to reason, will not take us very far. Although criticism has paid far less attention to the affective than to the intellectual dimensions of reading, our responses to literature are always emotional. So are our responses to music and advertisements, to newspaper stories and political speeches. Since these emotions are themselves mediated by language and culture, the observation that sentiments are conventionalized, socially organized emotions cannot be a ground for dismissing them as inauthentic. That is a common gesture of dismissal, both in everyday speech and in scholarship. But it derives from a map of the mind in which emotion preexists thought and remains separate from it, rather than being intricately and indispensably part of culture. It also neglects the specific history of the sentimental.
“Sentiment” is a very old word in English (the Oxford English Dictionary cites examples from Chaucer, in the fourteenth century). Its longer derivatives “sentimental” and “sentimentality,” on the other hand, entered the language in the mid-eighteenth century, at a moment when a great deal of attention was being paid to the moral and social function of emotion. Philosophers such as Francis Hutcheson (1742/2003) and Adam Smith (1759/1966) found the source of benevolence in sympathy for others, and the contemporary authors of novels of sensibility portrayed their characters’ intense emotional responsiveness as admirable and morally improving (Todd 1986). What was at stake in these philosophical and literary works was the shared and structured nature of feelings—their ability to link individuals in a chain of sympathy and the view that they could and should be cultivated. In the process, they were creating a quite comprehensive system of beliefs and values, blending an account of mental life—what we would now call psychology—with epistemology and ethics. In this conceptual system, the process of identification—how an individual puts himself or herself in someone else’s place and claims knowledge of what that other person is thinking and feeling—establishes the grounds for virtuous behavior and a humane social order.
Scholars of literature and culture have sometimes been skeptical of the link between these works and sentimentality in the United States, opposing U.S. to European traditions in the exceptionalist mode that once characterized much American studies research. By the end of the twentieth century, however, conversations about sensibility, sympathy, and sentiment had become thoroughly transatlantic (Fliegelman 1993; Barnes 1997; Ellison 1999). Racialized and gendered performances of emotional affiliation are important in Anglo-American thought, whether we examine the Declaration of Independence, William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy (1789/1996)—often called the first American novel—or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852/1981). In the latter, the narrator implicates the reader in a series of common experiences and bodily sensations and offers this famous injunction to oppose slavery emotionally: “There is one thing that every individual can do,—they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic inﬂuence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race” (1852/1981, 385). The inﬂuence of moral philosophy is clearly visible in the text that is probably the single most inﬂuential work of sentimental fiction.
The popular novels published by women writers of the antebellum period, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Susan Warner’s Wide, Wide World (1850/1993), and Maria Susanna Cummins’s The Lamplighter (1854/1988), have been classic locations for discussions of sentimentality in American studies (Douglas 1977; Tompkins 1985; S. Samuels 1992). They are indeed frequently characterized by a focus on sympathy and an ethic of human connectedness and by affiliation with a domestic ideology that locates these values in the home. Recent scholarship has shown not only the transatlantic nature of this tradition but also its permeation of other discourses, including writing by and about men (Chapman and Hendler 1999). Didactic domestic novels are closely linked to the vast literature of the temperance movement and to antislavery writing, and sentimental conventions are unevenly visible in poetry, art, and music. For the mid-nineteenth century, in fact, one can speak broadly of a middle-class sentimental culture that included such matters as dress and etiquette, imputing moral significance to fashion and manners.
In this constellation of attitudes and practices—which Raymond Williams (1977/1999, 128–35) might have called a “structure of feeling”—the home is imagined as a haven hedged off from the values of the marketplace and the state. Sympathy and benevolence are effective within a zone protected from the corrosive realities of economics and politics. One irony of this scenario is that it requires us to forget the everyday experience of family relations, which frequently entail negotiations over money and power. Another is that private homes of this sort can only be maintained by a constant ﬂow of commodities to be consumed behind their doors. They rely on the labor of those who produce those commodities and often on the labor of domestic servants who may even (especially before the twentieth century) reside within them. And they are the constant focus of public discourses and of government regulation and support, from sermons about the family to twentieth-century tax subsidies for homeownership. Sentimentality in our day is still intertwined with domestic ideology. It continues to proclaim the distinctive power of the private, while implicitly demonstrating the inseparability of the public and the private—or, we might say, the personal and the political—both at the level of individual psychology and in our cognitive maps of society (June Howard 2001).
The power of sentiment thus stems from the permeability of the very boundaries that sentimental culture strives to defend and secure (Burgett 1998; Hendler 2001). Sentimental fictions are publications—by definition, public—but they address the reader intimately; these market-mediated stories circulate right through the heart and the home. In sentimental culture, in fact, virtually any commodity can be animated with personal meaning. Objects selected for purchase are considered expressions of taste and personality and become the furniture and armature of a domestic world. That world has been considered women’s sphere; the associations between women and consumption, and women and emotion, arrived together. None of this implies that these feelings are inauthentic—any more than a sentiment expressed by purchasing and sending a greeting card is necessarily insincere. But historicizing them points out that the notion that they are insulated from the economic is a wish rather than a truth. We also recognize the link between objects and feelings in everyday usage when we say that something that has been (usually) bought and (always) used and valued has “sentimental value.”
Feeling right and having the right kind of home came to be fundamental to the life-world of the U.S. middle classes and to their broad-ranging claims to authority (M. Ryan 1981; Blumin 1989). The “disciplinary intimacy” that Richard Brodhead (1993) finds in sentimental literature carries social order deep into the self, as authorities are obeyed because they are loved and their laws internalized. The cultivated and virtuous seem to legitimize their privilege by deserving it; sometimes the less fortunate are depicted as lacking proper feelings and proper homes, as appropriate objects of sympathy, but also as less worthy citizens and perhaps even less fully human. This applies most often to racialized others—Indians, African Americans, sometimes the Irish, and (later) other immigrant groups. But the sentimental has also been appropriated by subordinated speakers; its politics are variable and complex (L. Romero 1997).
Most prominently, twenty-first-century scholarship has shown that the values associated with sentimentality are integral to the ideologies of colonialism and imperialism. What Laura Wexler (2000) has called “tender violence” justified brutal interventions in the family relations of indigenous people on the grounds that they had the wrong kind of families. Amy Kaplan (2002) has argued that “manifest domesticity” justified national expansion and U.S. imperialism, as the spaces of the home and the nation were rhetorically identified in the contrast between “domestic” and “foreign.” Ann Laura Stoler (2006) has pried open the distinction between postcolonial studies and North American history, showing intimate relations and the sentimental as central to the making of racial categories and imperial rule and suggesting that there may be no outside to empire. The post-9/11 trope of “homeland security” pushes back against such recognitions, deploying sentimentality to defend the idea of the bounded nation. Pointing that out neither invalidates nor supports the formulation; emotion has an entirely legitimate role in politics (Marcus 2002). However, the task of cultural studies is to offer a perspective from which to analyze such appeals; understanding the sentimental entails thinking critically about ﬂushes of feeling that arise over the boundary between “in here” and “out there.”
It seems unlikely that the controversies over sentimentality will be resolved by scholarly argument. The stigmatizing sense of “sentimental” entered the language almost with the word itself. After the mid-nineteenth century, hostility to sentimentality hardened and became more organized, especially through the misleading opposition between self-consciously literary texts and feminized didactic works. Realist writers, for instance, incorporated many elements of the sentimental, even as they defined their movement against it (W. Morgan 2004); later, modernists were still more dismissive. In literary history during the twentieth century, the sentimental tradition was more and more thoroughly erased—until feminist scholars insisted that it was worthy of attention. Since that time, literary and cultural history has been rewritten. American studies still sometimes oscillates between affirming the sentimental as an expression of women’s values and denouncing it as oppressive. Both of these perspectives have merit, and current scholarship is integrating them in a more fully historicized and critical view—as well as recognizing the pervasive presence of sentimentality, not just in one kind of literature but in many of the stories we tell about our lives. The term will remain charged and complex so long as our maps of the self and the world are divided between public and private, reason and emotion. The sentimental is a hinge that swings between the social and the subjective—reminding us, if we are willing to listen, that they are always connected.