Sentimental Collaborations: Mourning and Middle-Class Identity in Nineteenth-Century America

Sentimental Collaborations: Mourning and Middle-Class Identity in Nineteenth-Century America

by Mary Louise Kete

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During the 1992 Democratic Convention and again while delivering Harvard University’s commencement address two years later, Vice President Al Gore shared with his audience a story that showed the effect of sentiment in his life. In telling how an accident involving his son had provided him with a revelation concerning the compassion of others, Gore

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During the 1992 Democratic Convention and again while delivering Harvard University’s commencement address two years later, Vice President Al Gore shared with his audience a story that showed the effect of sentiment in his life. In telling how an accident involving his son had provided him with a revelation concerning the compassion of others, Gore effectively reconstructed himself as a typical, middle-class American for whom sympathy can lead to salvation. This contemporary reiteration of mid-nineteenth-century American sentimental discourse proves to be a fruitful point of departure for Mary Louise Kete’s argument that sentimentality has been an important and recurring form of cultural narrative that has helped to shape middle-class American life.
Many scholars have written about the sentimental novel as a primarily female genre and have stressed its negative ideological aspects. Kete finds that in fact many men—from writers to politicians—participated in nineteenth-century sentimental culture. Importantly, she also recovers the utopian dimension of the phenomenon, arguing that literary sentimentality, specifically in the form of poetry, is the written trace of a broad cultural discourse that Kete calls “sentimental collaboration”—an exchange of sympathy in the form of gifts that establishes common cultural or intellectual ground. Kete reads the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Lydia Huntley Sigourney with an eye toward the deployment of sentimentality for the creation of Americanism, as well as for political and abolitionist ends. Finally, she locates the origins of sentimental collaboration in the activities of ordinary people who participated in mourning rituals—writing poetry, condolence letters, or epitaphs—to ease their personal grief.
Sentimental Collaborations significantly advances prevailing scholarship on Romanticism, antebellum culture, and the formation of the American middle class. It will be of interest to scholars of American studies, American literature, cultural studies, and women’s studies.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Such is the reach of Kete’s scholarship that it succeeds in illuminating both the private experience of grief in American families and the public constitution of a national middle-class culture. It does so through a sophisticated reconceptualization of the forms and functions of sentimentalism in poetry and fiction.”—Robert Gross, College of William and Mary

“This book is an original and compelling study of a highly significant but largely neglected tradition of American poetry. More than that, it is a brilliant revaluation of the central role of sentimentality (in fiction as well as poetry) in the construction of nineteenth-century American middle-class culture. The result is a major work in the field of American Studies that has sweeping and important implications for the related fields of feminist and gender studies, and for cultural studies generally.”—Sacvan Bercovitch, Harvard University

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Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
New Americanists
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6.02(w) x 9.27(h) x 0.87(d)

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Sentimental Collaborations

Mourning and Middle-Class Identity in Nineteenth-Century America

By Mary Louise Kete

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9800-4


Harriet Gould's Book: Description and Provenance

* * *

Let me begin at the beginning, on March 18,1837, when a woman named Lois Gould gave her new sister-in-law, Harriet Lazell Gould, a book of blank pages bound in cardboard covered with ornamental, marbled paper and an embossed leather spine. Similar books were used for diaries, recipe books, housekeeping records, or household accounts, but Lois Gould seemed to have a specific use in mind. In a large, bold hand she titled it "Harriet Gould's Book, Dover, Vermont, March 18th, 1837" and went on to write the inscription that serves as an epigraph to this part of the present study. It is this inscription that transforms the limitless potential of the blank book into what it is: a keepsake album filled with verbal "remembrances." More important, the inscription provides directions for when, how, and why the book should be used. If it had been slightly later in the century and if Lois had been slightly better off financially, Harriet might have been given an album printed especially for a keepsake with engravings and gilt. But as it was, Harriet and her friends did turn the pages of this ordinary book to the extraordinary use of remembering. Together they wrote down forty different poems as "fond remembrances" of themselves. Almost every page of the album is written on, and eight additional poems were kept in an envelope between the cover and the pages of the book. The poems that are dated do not follow in chronological order—the majority of the poems are from the late 1830s and 1840s—and the dated entries suggest the album was more or less active through the early 1860s. Writers apparently chose the placement of their contributions with some degree of care, just as they used obvious care in their handwriting. Few of the texts have scratch-outs or corrections — all seem to be "clean" copies. All of the verse is didactic; all of it is to some degree influenced by the influx of British and Continental Romantic verse that was beginning to be featured in the Poetry columns of the local papers. The subjects of the poems in the album range from political and religious credos, to elegies on friends and ministers, to meditations on death. All of the poems touch on loss. All of the poems are gifts.

The provenance and contents of Harriet Gould's Book prove it to be, in many ways, typical. From the period of the early republic through the Reconstruction era it was common for a woman or girl (less frequently a man or boy) to keep such an album. The owner of the album would ask her friends to write in it and they would respond in one of the following ways: (i) copy something composed by someone else and attribute it to that person, (2) write something original, or (3) alter a poem composed by someone else to fit the present circumstances better. Sometimes the owner would do all the actual writing in her own hand; but usually albums contain evidence of several autographs. Often the owner would also write her own favorites in her album. Less frequently, the owner would fill the album with extracts or verses chosen solely by and for herself. Harriet Gould's Book is consistent with this description, but in other ways, this manuscript is atypical and therefore of more interest than many other examples. For one thing, the degree of its completion— almost every page is written on—shows that Harriet Gould apparently kept up her interest in the practice over the course of several decades as she matured from bride to widow. Many similar examples bespeak an initial enthusiasm that fails to be maintained. Second, it is part of a rich collection of associated items — diaries, other albums, hair-remembrancers, weavings, genealogies —owned by related individuals and providing an unusually deep context for unraveling the various personal relationships of the writers.

As can be seen by leafing through the appendixes, where these poems are transcribed, Harriet herself was a significant contributor to her own book. Following the directions embodied in Lois's epigraph, Harriet copied favorite poems and experimented with original verse as a means of memorializing her own losses as they occurred. Her contributions testify to (as they supplement) the memorializing power of the "remembrances" written by others. The other writers in the Book lived in the town of Dover or nearby; most, like Harriet and her husband, John, belonged to the Baptist church. Many were related, either by blood or marriage, to Harriet. Whether written by others or by herself, these remembrances exhibit a high degree of Intertextuality. They talk to each other, quoting each other or appropriating and redeploying lines, fragments, images, from shared sources. They talk with each other, to the extent that the manuscript as a whole seems the product of a corporate author despite the signatures that mark the writers of some, though not all, of the pieces. Though the products of numerous separate writers, these poems bespeak an effort to work together on the common projects of their lives. It is for this reason that I have come to understand the main function of Sentimentality to be collaboration.

Although Harriet Gould wrote in her own album, Harriet Gould's Book itself is a composite created by many authors whose works are unified under her direction. Harriet, as owner, is both author and compiler, not unlike the medieval owners of manuscripts. As an artifact, the album seems to have circulated to some degree after the death of Harriet Gould and then to have come into the possession of the Howes of Wilmington, Vermont, through Harriet's sister-in-law Abigail Gould Howe. Family lore has it that the Book had been transferred to Eva Parmelee Howe on the occasion of the death of her four-year-old son in the 1920s, then later came into the possession of Florence Fox Howe before being given to its present owners, Ralph and Verne Howe. (With the collection is a much later example kept by Florence Fox Howe at the turn of the last century and a later example kept by Abigail Gould Howe, herself.) The loose poems tucked into the pages of the book, which I consider an integral part of the album, were all written by or to Harriet and by or to her sister-in-law Abigail on the occasions of the loss of their children.

Harriet Gould's Book, like the many albums it typifies, offers a view of nineteenth-century life that is, in many respects, inconsistent with the popular view of that time. It insists upon the omnipresence of loss and dislocation while, for the late twentieth century, the antebellum years have tended to be constructed as the locus of longings for stable homes and families. This nostalgic view of the past conveniently allows us to see our present moment as one of decline and to define the present America as in a state of perdition. Because we are invested in picturing the past as a time of Utopian fulfillment, the expressions of anxiety, fear, and loss that are contained in much antebellum poetry have tended to be read and dismissed as suspect, inauthentic, or Self-indulgent. In other words, these anxieties have been seen as "sentimental," in the derogatory sense of displaying a disproportionate amount of emotion for the occasion. They have also been seen as morbid since many of the themes and subjects deal either directly or indirectly with death and Grief.

But, as historians such as Phillipe Aries suggest, the cultural role of death as a node of social organization has shifted to such a degree in the past century that it is hard to unpack the meaning and the function of such seemingly excessive attention to death and grief. In the conclusion of his survey of Western attitudes toward death, Aries argues that the "beginning of the twentieth century saw the completion of the psychological mechanism that removed death from society, eliminated its character of public ceremony, and made it a private act" (575). Quoting Geoffrey Gorer, Aries further argues that by mid 20th century "death had become as shameful and unmentionable as sex was in the Victorian era. One taboo had been substituted for another" (575). This historical shift has been particularly dramatic in America. As Martha Pike and Janice Armstrong argue in the introduction to their collection of essays A Time to Mourn: Expressions of Grief in Nineteenth-Century America, mourning was one of the few and first acceptable occasions for the purchase and display of nonessential commodities. In the twentieth century, only marriage comes close to the role mourning once held in terms of the production and reproduction of social status. Harriet Gould's Book corroborates these findings. More than that, it shows that mourning was a technology for the reorganization of the self that demanded and enforced the collaborative participation of more than one person.

Despite the fact that the people who left their traces in Harriet Gould's Book made no particular claim to fame, it is possible to learn quite a bit about them. Much of the provenance of this particular manuscript can be established from evidence in the album itself combined with evidence from local histories, graveyards, genealogies, church records, and the personal memories of the descendants of these writers. For the most part, the parents of the generation that dominates this book were some of the first settlers of this area; the Goulds, Howes, and Lazells had all migrated from the lower Connecticut River valley or from the greater Boston area in the final years of the eighteenth century. Vermont, of course, has an indisputable place in New England culture, but it was not one of the original thirteen states and much of the area was not settled until after the Revolution. Except for the fertile and more temperate Connecticut River valley and the coastline of Lake Champlain, most of Vermont is mountainous and inhospitable to farming. Population expansion in lower New England and the legal barriers to geographical expansion west drove settlers north to take up small farming, sheep raising, and, principally, tree harvesting and wood processing.

Harriet Gould (1807-92) lived and died in the southern Vermont county of Windham, which lies halfway between the Connecticut River valley town of Brattleboro and the Hoosetonic valley town of Bennington. As part of the land contested in colonial days by the holders of the New York and New Hampshire grants, Dover was not incorporated until just after the turn of the nineteenth century, in 1803. Only in the 1830s, around the time when this blank book was put into service as a poetry album by the second- and third-generation settlers, did the distinctive Vermont frame houses completely replace the original log structures. With the introduction of sheep farming in the 1820s, the forest cover of most of the Green Mountains and valleys was removed except for occasional groves and in the most inaccessible gores. Photographs from mid-and late century show a Vermont landscape that was much more pastoral, less forested, than today. Brattleboro and Bennington thrived under these conditions. But each had been established towns with literary aspirations from prerevolutionary days. It was to Brattleboro, for example, that Royall Tyler had retired and at Bennington that Ethan Allen had written his polemical diatribes and from which he organized the Green Mountain Boys. Numerous antebellum literary figures (such as Harriet Beecher Stowe) came to Brattleboro in the years before the Civil War to take the water cure at one of the first hydrotherapy sanatoriums in the country. On the other side of the Green Mountain watershed lay Bennington with its strong tradition of revolutionary ferment and its complementary connections to both southern New England and New York culture.

As William Gilmore has argued in his study of the same Vermont region, the culture of rural New England during the early republic was strikingly different from the rural culture of Europe. Whereas in Europe rural geography corresponded to traditional culture (which Gilmore defines as innately conservative, transmitted orally, and stressing relationships with the past), Vermont typified a new and distinctly American phenomenon. Although geographically distant from the large urban centers, these communities were not culturally insular but connected via the rivers with older more established communities with whom they continued to identify. Most important, even during the earliest frontier efforts, settlers were tied into regional, national, and international cultural events through the media of newspapers and books (Gilmore). The mass media of print culture enabled American settlers to maintain strong connections with contemporary life in distant places. Although far from Boston or Hartford and although hardly well off financially, Dover residents were never far from what V. L. Parrington famously described as the "main currents of American culture." In 1840, for example, ten to fifteen thousand people heard Daniel Webster speak only a few miles from Dover on Stratton Mountain (Doyle 120). Brattleboro and Bennington both had had presses and publishers early in the century which produced newspapers taken by residents of the hill towns such as Dover. For these reasons, the settlement of Vermont provides a type for the settlement of other American frontiers later in the century. When, for example, Henry Ward Beecher described the settlers of the Western Reserve as driving their churches, schools, and presses along with them like cattle he might have been speaking of the early settlement of Vermont as well.

Print media, as recent research on reading in early America has shown, played a new and important role in the formation of a national "American" culture. It worked, as mass culture tends to do, to homogenize culture through the widespread and promiscuous dispersion of information, opinions, and tastes. One somewhat familiar example of the way that print culture in America affected the way that early nineteenth-century Americans thought about themselves is the American Antiquarian Society's edition of The Diary of an Apprentice Cabinetmaker: Edward Jenner Carpenter's "Journal," 1844-45. Edward Carpenter's Journal recounts what Carpenter was reading, what lectures he attended, and how these practices fit into his life as an apprentice in western Massachusetts. Similarly, Harriet Gould's Book provides some evidence of what rural New Engenders were reading. But, more important, it provides evidence of how they were reading; how readers re-deployed what they had read for their own purposes.

Harriet and her neighbors didn't have to expend much money or effort to read poetry. A major feature of nineteenth-century New England newspapers was the poetry column that was prominently featured on the first page of publications serving Dover, such as the Brattleboro Reformer, the Vermont Gazette, and the Spooner's Vermont Journal. Although the poems tend to have pride of place on the left-hand column of the front page, they share the page with news items, editorials, and advertisements. Editors of these local papers chose their selections from various sources, including their readers, other newspapers, magazines, and books. Later in the century, Mark Twain was to make much fun of the contents of these "original poetry columns" even as he contributed his own serious and satiric verse. But in the early nineteenth century, before the disputed split arose between the culture of the many (low) and the culture of the few (high), New England poetry columns might well feature a poem by Lord Byron, one by Felicia Hemans, one by the Rev. Mr. So and So of Hartford, and a remembrance of one's neighbor down the hill. So, when Harriet Gould's neighbors and family members turned to her book, they had a wide variety of models to refer to beyond the small set of texts (such as the poetry of Shakespeare, the Bible, Pilgrim's Progress, the prose of sermons, and the verse of Protestant hymns) common to nineteenth-century household libraries.


Excerpted from Sentimental Collaborations by Mary Louise Kete. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Mary Louise Kete is Assistant Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Vermont.

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