Sentimental appropriations: contemporary sympathy in the novels of Grace Lumpkin, Josephine Johnson, John Steinbeck, Margaret Walker, Octavia Butler, and Toni Morrison Public Deposited

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  • March 21, 2019
  • Williamson, Jennifer Ann
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • This project investigates the appearance of the nineteenth-century American sentimental mode in more recent literature, revealing that the cultural work of sentimentalism continues in the twentieth-century and beyond. By examining working-class literature that adopts the rhetoric of "feeling right" in order to promote a proletarian ideology as well as neo-slave narratives that wrestle with the legacy of slavery, this study explores the ways contemporary authors engage with familiar sentimental tropes and ideals. Despite modernism's influential assertion that sentimentalism portrays emotion that lacks reality or depth, narrative claims to feeling--particularly those based in common and recognizable forms of suffering--remain popular. It seems clear that such authors as Grace Lumpkin, Josephine Johnson, John Steinbeck, Margaret Walker, Octavia Butler, and Toni Morrison apply the rhetorical methods of sentimentalism to the cultural struggles of their age. Contemporary authors self-consciously struggle with sentimentalism's gender, class, and race ideals; however, sentimentalism's dual ability to promote these ideals and extend identification across them makes it an attractive and effective mode for political and social influence. The authors in this study draw upon common sentimental themes such as vulnerable womanhood, motherhood and family, caregiving and domesticity, death and the fear of separation, and Christian salvation to establish sympathy for "Othered" members of society. Sentimental literature not only helped mark private and public spaces, but it also redefined the family as more than just a biological or economic unit -- it bound the family in terms of affection and love. Like their nineteenth-century predecessors, contemporary authors expand the definitions of family and kinship in order to develop sympathy for those who have been cast as outsiders and "Others." This study examines how contemporary authors modify the sentimental mode through narrative appropriation--adopting the perspectives and voices of "Others" and figuring them as legitimate objects of reader sympathy. Many current sentimental works appropriate the subjectivity of the "Other" in a form of colonial or postcolonial sympathy that assumes or critiques a universal western perspective that believes its power of sympathy to be so strong that it can effectively inhabit the "Others" it seeks to help and improve.
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  • Wagner-Martin, Linda
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Graduation year
  • 2012

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