With few exceptions, contemporary criticism reads nineteenth-century sentimental fiction as a literature of love. When Harriet Beecher Stowe famously asserted that the moral growth of the nation depended on each citizen’s ability to “feel right,” she voiced a sentiment shared by many of her contemporaries. It is no surprise, then, that scholars have assumed Stowe’s injunction to “feel right” was a call to feel compassion and love, for it was ostensibly through a rhetoric of Christian love that Stowe was able to foment a passionate outcry against slavery from many of her Northern readers. Indeed, sentimentalism’s transformative potential is best expressed in Stowe’s antislavery writing, and scholars continue to uphold her fiction as the paradigmatic example of nineteenth-century abolitionist sentimentality. The ascendancy of love as the identifiable trait of nineteenth-century sentimental writing, moreover, marks a crucial moment in literary criticism. Modern scholars who wanted to claim that a formidable feminist presence existed within the American Renaissance had to separate the sentimental tradition from nineteenth-century Calvinism, which scholars have historically equated with patriarchal power. They have thus detached Calvinism’s severe brand of evangelical theology, which stressed the judgment of God, from a feminized sentimental philosophy that emphasized salvation through motherly love. As a result, the prevailing scholarly view understands love to be the revolutionary impulse behind nineteenth-century sentimental reform, and critics use “sympathy” and “sympathetic identification” as shorthand for this process whereby love and compassion result from an affective bond formed across lines of difference.

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Publication Date

Summer 2013

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Copyright © 2013 Johns Hopkins University Press and Saint Louis University. This article first appeared in African American Review 46, no. 2-3 (Summer/Fall 2013): 255-69.

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