To survey the history of sentimental literature in America is to gain insight into some of the most critical moments in American culture. As Thomas Paine's influential essay of 1776 explained, it is on the grounds of “common sense” that the colonial Englishman would be able to “generously enlarge his views beyond the present day” and so imagine and ultimately fight for independence. And the existence of common sense, Paine and his audience understood, was proved by the recognition that all people respond to the loss of their children in the same way. Sentimentality—featuring broken homes restored, dying children revived, and lost lovers found through the power of shared emotions—is a way to remind readers that at root we are all lost children, no matter how vast may seem the differences made apparent by logic and circumstance. Sentimentality expresses the utopian impulse to abolish boundaries and expand community upon which the ideological force of American identity depends. In other words, it is a term for a discursive mode, not a genre nor a historical period, that is used to construct a shared or common sensibility that hides the traces of its invention under the cloak of tradition.Less
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