The term “sentiment” marks the recognition that emotions are social and historical. We tend to think of feelings as 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 explicitly acknowledged or (often) invoked and obscured. They are vexed and value-laden terms, which have a complex range of uses in everyday speech and have been the focus of much debate in literary history, American studies, and cultural studies.
The clearest common element of definitions and discussions of “sentiment” is that it is linked to emotion or affect. When we are moved, the experience is anchored in our bodies. Tears may come to our eyes, and our hearts may beat faster; perhaps our stomach roils or our skin flushes. These physiological responses are emotion’s most intimate aspects 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. But scholars across many disciplines argue that sensations become emotions only through language and memory as they are played out in the theater of the brain; they are “embodied thoughts” (M. Rosaldo 1984, 143). Indeed, all human cognition is embodied because it must be oriented by the sense of an implicated self. Neurologists tell us that individuals with brain injuries that impair emotions also have trouble making sensible choices; they cannot understand what is at stake in their decisions (Damasio 1994). Emotion appears to be fundamental to all mental life, infused in all our mental processes. Thus usages of the term “sentiment” that merely equate it with emotion, as opposed to reason, will not take us very far.
Nor will usages of the word that reduce sentiment to scripted, inauthentic feelings; after all, every emotion is socially mediated. The names we have available to describe feelings, our ideas about what to do with them, and the stories we tell ourselves and others about what they mean all have histories. Yet the word “sentimentality” is still sometimes used to indicated that something is shallow or even dishonest, both in everyday speech and in scholarship. That dismissal 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 neglects the specific histories of the sentimental. In recent years, cultural criticism has been paying careful attention to these histories, tracing the affective as well as the intellectual aspects of our collective practices of reading and looking. Discussions of sentiment and sentimentality now take their place among other analyses of the pervasive, immense power of affect and emotion in public and private life.
“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. “Common Sense” philosophers such as Francis Hutcheson ( 2003) and Adam Smith ( 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 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 themself 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 about linking these works to sentimentality in the United States, thus reinscribing an opposition between US and European traditions in the exceptionalist mode that once characterized much American studies research. By the end of the twentieth century, however, most 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 ( 1996)—often called the first American novel—or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin ( 1981). In the latter, the narrator implicates the reader in a series of bodily sensations and common experiences and offers this famous injunction to oppose slavery through emotion: “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” (385). The influence of moral philosophy is clearly visible in the text that may be the single most influential work that mobilizes sentiment to political ends.
Scholars of literary history began in the middle of the twentieth century to use the terms “sentimental novels” and “sentimental fiction” to describe Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other popular novels published by women writers of the antebellum period, such as Susan Warner’s Wide, Wide World ( 1993) and Maria Susanna Cummins’s The Lamplighter ( 1988; 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 an ideology that locates these values in the home and the “domestic.” Scholarship has shown not only the transatlantic nature of this literary 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 the United States, 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.
Feeling right and having the right kind of home came to be fundamental to the life-world of the US 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 are internalized. The cultivated and virtuous seem to legitimize their privilege by deserving it. The “less fortunate”—most often racialized others—are depicted as lacking proper feelings and proper families or homes. From the nineteenth through the twenty-first centuries, the notion that subordinated groups may be appropriate objects of sympathy but are not fully worthy citizens and perhaps even not fully human underpins many of the topoi of racism. But it matters also that sentimental conventions and the opportunity to testify about the experience of oppression have been appropriated again and again by subordinated speakers. The politics of sentimentality are variable and complex (L. Romero 1997).
In this constellation of attitudes and practices—what Raymond Williams ( 1997, 128–35) called a “structure of feeling”—private life and the home are imagined as havens 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 romantic and family relations, which frequently entail negotiations over money and power. Another is that private homes 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 might 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 tax subsidies for homeownership. Sentimentality in our day continues to proclaim the distinctive power of the private while implicitly demonstrating the inseparability of private and public—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). Lauren Berlant treats the sentimental as “a main historical artery for making affect worlds,” analyzing women’s culture as an intimate public that circulates profoundly destructive fantasies of gendered and national belonging (2008, 2011).
The power of sentiment stems from the permeability of the very boundaries that sentimental discourse and culture strive 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 gendered personal or domestic world. The associations between women and emotion and women and consumption arrived together. None of this implies that anyone’s feelings are inauthentic any more than a sentiment expressed by purchasing and sending a greeting card is necessarily insincere. But historicizing them shows that the notion 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.” 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 US imperialism, as the spaces of the home and the nation were rhetorically identified in the contrast between “domestic” and “foreign.” Ann Laura Stoler (2006), applying the methodologies of postcolonial studies to North American history, has demonstrated that intimate relations and the sentimental are central to the making of racial categories and imperial rule and suggested that there may be no outside to empire. The post-9/11 topos of “homeland security” pushes back against such recognitions, deploying sentimentality to defend the idea of the bounded nation; since 2015, the proposal to “make America great again” by building literal walls around it has gained public purchase. Pointing out their conceptual origins neither invalidates nor supports these frameworks, but scholarly research offers one 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.”
The stigmatizing sense of “sentimental” entered the language almost with the word itself. After the mid-nineteenth century, hostility hardened and became more organized, especially through the misleading opposition between self-consciously literary texts and feminized didactic works. Realist writers, for instance, often defined their movement against sentimentality, even as they incorporated many elements of it (W. Morgan 2004; Dawson 2015). 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, much of literary and cultural history has been rewritten. But “sentiment” and its derivatives still appear constantly in articles and books, and our more historicized and nuanced view of the tradition does not seem to deter scholars from taking sides (McCann 2015). We continue to oscillate between seeing this structure of feeling as oppressive and valuing it as a recognition of human connectedness or the expression of subordinated perspective. The term is a keyword because it is charged and complex; it shapes our modern map of the world. The sentimental is a hinge that swings between private and public, the social and the subjective. It reminds us, if we are willing to listen, not only that they are connected—but also that they cannot be separated.