This book begins by discussing how scholars of nineteenth-century U.S. literature have wrestled with the problems and possibilities presented by American sentimental culture. Alternately scorned as a superficial and hypocritical cure-all for social injustices and lauded as a radical intervention into the self-interested aims of capitalist culture, sentimentalism has evaded our attempts to pin down its particular use in U.S. society. The author believes this is in part because sentimental narratives tend to work both toward and against an ideal vision of democratic community. In their invocation of empathy for others, nineteenth-century sentimental texts posit the potential for breaking down hierarchical structures to acknowledge the core suffering that all human beings, regardless of rank or position, share.
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