This semester, I taught the “Sentimental Fragments” collection in my American Literature survey course through 1865. Initially, I was a had a little trepidation about teaching these fragments in the course, specifically since I do no incorporate much sentimental fiction into the syllabus. As well, I do not have any fiction texts before the 1820s, Since it is a survey course, I use the Penguin anthology, and the earliest fiction text is Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle.” When teaching “Sentimental Fragments,” this aspect of the anthology causes a problem because I do not have students read authors such as Susanna Rowson, Hannah Webster Foster, William Hill Brown, and others.
Before reading “Sentimental Fragments,” students read a couple of stories by Lydia Maria Child and William Apess’ An Indian’s Looking Glass for the White Man. With those texts, especially Child’s “Slavery’s Pleasant Homes” and “Chocorua’s Curse,” students had an idea about the use of sentimentalism to convey emotion and hopefully lead the reader to some for of action. However, we did not delve too far into these aspects when we discussed the readings. As such, they were a little lost when they initially read the fragments.
My classes meet in an active learning space, and throughout the semester I take advantage of this set up and have students work in groups on specific questions and topics relating to texts. On the day that we covered the “Sentimental Fragments,” I had students work in groups of 3-4, provided each group with a short reading, and posed a question to each group. (The questions are below.) The groups had to write their answers on the glass boards or on a sheet of paper. When finished, each group had to convey to the class what they learned and how what they learned connected to the selections contained with the “Sentimental Fragments.”
I decided to choose my supplemental readings based on the suggestions for further reading that Duncan Faherty and Ed White recommended. I found the introductions to texts such as Jane Tompkins’ Sensationial Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860 (1986), Elizabeth Barnes’ States of Sympathy: Seduction and Democracy in the American Novel (1997), and others on Google books. As well, I found a couple of videos discussing sentimentalism and republican motherhood for groups to look at. Finally, I had a couple of groups look at online editions of the Freedom’s Journal and the interactive Viral Texts Project.
Ultimately, I wanted students to come away with a couple of key points from our discussion about “Sentimental Fragments.” For one, I wanted them to see the ways that literary scholars approached sentimental literature and the ways that scholars like Tompkins and Shirley Samuels argued for a literary canon that included sentimental texts. As such, I wanted to give them an idea of the paths that led to them reading these fragments in our class in 2018. Along with this, I also wanted them to understand he role of newspapers in the construction of “imagined communities” and the ways that newspapers functioned as tools of education and community building. Finally, I wanted them to see the ways that sentimental literature spoke to concerns surrounding the nation during the late 18th and early 19th century. However, this aspect did not come through well, and I assume that it is due to the fact that we did not read any other sentimental texts from those decades.
Unfortunately, I do not think students got as much out of our discussions of “Sentimental Fragments” as I hoped they would. I attribute this, as I said earlier, to the lack of corresponding texts that they could relate the fragments to, specifically in regard to the ways that those texts present the family as a microcosm of the nation. Teaching these pieces in the future, I would make sure to have students reads texts such as Charlotte Temple, Wieland, The Power of Sympathy, or others.
I do think this approach helped them to see the role of newspapers during the period and also gave them insights into the ways that we construct and restructure the literary canon. With this, they also saw how even the construction of the canon is a statement and act in and of itself when we decide who or what to include and exclude from the canon. One of my goals is to always show students, no matter what level, these discussions and movements within the academy because Tompkins pushing back against the American Renaissance created the opportunity for students to explore the fragments and other texts that they may not have experienced earlier.
- The sentimental fragments we read for today circulated in newspapers both in England and the United States during the latter part of the eighteenth and into the early part of the nineteenth century. Looking at the “interactive exhibits” on the Viral Texts website, discuss the importance of newspapers in early American literature. Focus on two-three aspects. As well, discuss how what you found in The Raftsman’s Journal relates to one or more of the sentimental fragments we read for homework.
- Watch the video from Dartmouth College on sentimentalism How does the presented define “sentimentalism”? What does the presenter say about the critical reception of sentimental literature over the past thirty-forty years? From the definition provided, choose one fragment we read and show how it fits with the speaker’s definition.
- Read pages xi-xiv of Jane Tompkins’ Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860 (1986). What is Tompkins argument here? Why did she choose to write Sensational Designs? Based on what she says, are the sentimental fragments we read worthy of criticism and discussion? Why or why not?
- Read pages 1-4 of Elizabeth Barnes’ States of Sympathy: Seduction and Democracy in the American Novel (1997). What is Barnes’ argument? Does she view sentimental literature as a democratizing genre? Or, does it undermine democratic principles? How does what Barnes’ states relate to one or two of the sentimental fragments we read for class?
- Read pages 1-4 of Michelle Burnham’s Captivity and Sentiment: Cultural Exchange in American Literature, 1682-1861 (2000). How does Burnham hope to redefine “sympathy”? What questions does she ask about sentimental literature? Do you see Mary Rowlandson or John Marrant as sentimental texts? How? Why?
- Read pages 190-193 of Cathy Davidson’s Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America(1986). According to Davidson, what is one of the functions of the sentimental novel? What connections does Davidson draw between female pregnancies and education? Do we see any of the tropes/examples that Davidson mentions in the sentimental fragments that we read for today.
- In Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America(1840), he discusses the role of newspapers in American and Europe. What is his argument? How do you see the sentimental fragments we read playing into this argument? Remember, they were disseminated in newspapers. Choose one fragment and discuss what message you think it wanted to convey to readers.
- The Freedom’s Journal was the first African American newspaper in American (1827-1829). Look at a couple of issues of the journal. Are there any fragments, poems, or fiction that appear to be sentimental texts? What is one of these texts? Summarize it. What purpose do you think the text served for readers of the paper.
- Define the term “Republican Motherhood.” To help you with this, watch this video and read the definition here . Do you see Republican Motherhood in any of the sentimental fragments that we read? If so, where? Do you see the metaphor of the family as the American populous in any of the fragments? If so, where?
What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.