The sentimental novel

Writing romance novels takes optimism. What happens when optimism runs out? After the Civil War, African American women turned from writing slave narratives, which gave them room to incorporate elements of the sentimental novel, to writing love stories full of hope for the future. Scholar William Gleason describes the growth of this trend, and looks at how Reconstruction’s brutal failure strangled the budding genre.


How did black authors in the 19th century use sentimental fiction traditions?

It’s really a fascinating history. You have African American women writers beginning to get published in the 19th century, or to write manuscripts that we have today that were not necessarily published. But the emergence of the novel at the intersection of the slave narrative—which was an accepted genre for African Americans to write in—and the sentimental novel, which was an accepted genre for women to write in.

So you have books like Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which is a slave narrative written really in the form, or as a subversion of the form, of a domestic novel or a sentimental novel. It’s a domestic novel in which the lead character spends most of her time in a crawlspace. She’s in the attic, so that’s already a rewriting and revisiting what it means to be a “domestic novel.” But that’s the sort of earliest nexus, and part of that is simply finding publishable venues in which to write, acceptable venues for a black woman to write in the 19th century. The slave narrative was one, the sentimental novel was another.

What’s interesting for me is what comes right after that period. So, the vogue for slave narratives continues even to some degree after the Civil War but it really fades—it begins to fade at that moment. The domestic novel remains strong in the 19th century—the Victorian marriage plot—and what we see are African American writers no longer necessarily using the slave narrative, but adopting or readopting the sentimental Victorian love plot in a way to rewrite and revisit that plot for the late 19th century. Not for the Antebellum era, but for the post-Reconstruction era. So, from 1877 to the turn of the century, you have a period of increasing disfranchisement for African Americans. The gains of Reconstruction are being aggressively pushed back against throughout the country; but you have a whole set of African American women writers who write incredibly optimistic Victorian love plots, marriage plots.

And there’s a marvelous study of these books by my former colleague Claudia Tate called Domestic Allegories of Political Desire. And her argument is these books are not simply escapist fiction. They are partly an escape; it’s partly an opportunity for readers to read about lives that aren’t thwarted by racial oppression—but they’re not simply that. They are an opportunity to re-imagine the future that feels like it’s at hand, that was at hand, felt like it was there, during Reconstruction, and still feels in reach during this era from [the] late 1870s to 1900. And to re-imagine that era as an era of happiness in which a heroine who achieves a satisfying marriage and establishes a family and achieves economic prosperity is an allegory for the political hopes of African Americans during this period. She actually argues that the novels can capture for us a collective racial desire for this kind of civic role for African Americans that is systematically being thwarted but is still understood as a goal and felt as a reachable goal. And she situates us within the networks of black women’s reading clubs, the kind of emergence of black women’s middle class culture.

How did these novels change at the turn of the century?

These novels really flower in the 1890s. That seems to be the decade in which several different black women writers are imagining, “This is how we’ll do it. This is what it would look like if it all came true.” And around 1900, when things just get so bad, the novels begin to pull away from that model, and they start to tell the tragic version.

One of the early novels in this tradition is Iola Leroy by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. And Iola Leroy is written in 1892, the subtitle of the novel is Or, Shadows Uplifted. The last paragraph is something like, now the shadows were lifted off of the hero and heroine, and they’re blessed and they can be blessings to others. Their lives worked out and they’re an example for all of you. And Harper even has a note after the narrative ending where she says, basically, “By the way, the mission of this book is to give people faith that this can happen.” So that’s 1892.

Pauline Hopkins, this is another of these writers. In 1900, she writes a book called Contending Forces, which is also an optimistic black Victorian love story. But by 1901 she can’t write that story any more. And she writes three more novels—1901, 1902, 1903—and each of those novels has a tragic ending. In those novels she can no longer imagine what seemed imaginable only a year before, and what had thrived in the 1890s.

So, what Tate argues changed is that the optimism had simply finally dried up. The lynchings had gotten so bad, the voter suppression had gotten so bad, conditions were so appalling that what preoccupied consciousness was, “How are we going to get out of this?,” not “We know we’re going to make it.” You can track it in the emotional register of these fictions. The writers who follow can’t even access that happy plot anymore; it’s gone. And it’s gone because historical circumstances have changed. That’s the interesting turn I think from those early sort of mash-ups of genres that were available into a genre that sort of became their own form and how they simply couldn’t sustain it.

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