Apocalyptic Sentimentalism: Love and Fear in U.S. Antebellum by Kevin Pelletier

By Kevin Pelletier

In distinction to the existing scholarly con-sensus that knows sentimentality to be grounded on a common sense of affection and sympathy, Apocalyptic Sentimentalism demonstrates that during order for sentimentality to paintings as an antislavery engine, it had to be associated with its seeming opposite—fear, specially the phobia of God’s wrath. so much antislavery reformers well-known that demands love and sympathy or the illustration of pain slaves wouldn't lead an viewers to “feel correct” or to actively oppose slavery. the specter of God’s apocalyptic vengeance—and the fear that this possibility inspired—functioned in the culture of abolitionist sentimentality as an important goad for sympathy and love. Fear,then, used to be on the middle of nineteenth-century sentimental options for inciting antislavery reform, bolstering love while love faltered, and working as a robust mechanism for developing interracial sympathy. Depictions of God’s apocalyptic vengeance constituted the best procedure for antislavery writers to generate a feeling of terror of their audience.

concentrating on quite a number very important anti-slavery figures, together with David Walker, Nat Turner, Maria Stewart, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Brown, Apocalyptic Sentimentalism illustrates how antislavery discourse labored to redefine violence and vengeance because the final expression (rather than denial) of affection and sympathy. on the sametime, those warnings of apocalyptic retribution enabled antislavery writers to precise, albeit not directly, fantasies of brutal violence opposed to slaveholders. What begun as a sentimental approach fast turned an incendiary gesture, with antislavery reformers envisioning the total annihilation of slaveholders and defenders of slavery.

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The manner in which a minister communicated apocalyptic theology in a sermon and its purposes therein were often quite different from how it manifested and operated in novels (though, of course, they could be quite similar as well). Likewise, just as a political exhortation from an abolitionist differed from a landscape painting, so did the accounts of apocalypse produced within these respective discourses. While I have chosen to investigate how a very particular type of apocalyptic representation functioned within the genre of abolitionist sentimentality, the apocalypse was, by the nineteenth century, a radically versatile and polymorphous conceptual category that could be accommodated to the exigencies of theological debate while at the same time serving as a central aesthetic category within visual or written works of art.

It is against this tradition that I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin in chapter 3. While I agree that Stowe does privilege love, and while I support the view that Stowe is indeed the paradigmatic sentimental writer of the nineteenth century, I nevertheless maintain that Stowe does not possess absolute confidence in the power of love to transform a nation of readers into vehement opponents of slavery. Love, in Stowe’s view, is powerful and absolutely necessary, but it is not autogenic. While Stowe insists on nurturing a loving disposition, and while she repeatedly depicts fictional characters who demonstrate great love, neither approach will guarantee that such a loving spirit will emerge from among her readers.

Her portrayal of Uncle Tom as a submis26 Introduction sive and self-sacrificing protagonist as well as her decision to relocate the major surviving black characters of the novel to Africa are just two instances when a so-called sentimental politics has not seemed to accord with the principles of an inclusive democratic society. If Stowe’s “political” solutions seem limited and impractical in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, they become highly radicalized in Dred, Stowe’s second antislavery novel. One dramatic difference is that in Dred, Stowe earnestly considers and appears at times to even promote the possibility of slave violence as an acceptable response to slavery.

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