Just Teach One

Sentimental Fragments from Early U.S. Publications (late 18c to early 19c)

Winter 2018 – Just Teach One no. 12
Prepared by Duncan Faherty (Queens College & The CUNY Graduate Center) and Ed White (Tulane University)



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Teaching Reflections




The regular fare of many 18C and 19C US readers was the newspaper and the periodical, which were the source  of news but also of much of what we think of today as “literature,” the fiction, poetry, or essays popular at the time.  Because so many readers encountered literary works through the newspaper or magazine format, they often read works in serial installments over a long period of time, excerpts rather than complete works, or short fragments rather than longer works.  Reproduced below are fragments that appeared in US periodicals and newspapers between the 1780s and the 1810s.  We may look at such short works today and think of them as page fillers, thrown in between the longer works in a magazine.  But the fragment was a recognized and respected staple of late 18C and early 19C publication.  Between 1789 and 1796, the popular Massachusetts Magazine, for example, published no less than 38 short pieces titled with the label “fragment,” not to mention many other short works that might be considered fragments.  The New-York Magazine, or Literary Repository shows similar numbers during its 1790-97 run, with 27 short pieces using the label “fragment.”  Elizabeth Wanning Harries, in The Unfinished Manner: Essays on the Fragment in the Later Eighteenth Century (1994), discusses the many different types or functions of fragments that appear in 18C writing.  Fragments might sometimes present portions of an incomplete argument or artwork, inviting readers to imagine a completed version.  Fragments might sometimes create an effect of age or “distress,” like a torn manuscript sheet or a page from a lost book, making readers wonder about authenticity and origin.  Fragments might also depict brief episodes of emotional intensity deliberately removed from longer narratives.  All of these fragment types, in prose and in poetry, appear among the examples in The New-York Magazine and The  Massachusetts Magazine.

Sentimental literature tended to favor the last of these fragment types: the intense, complex portrayal of an emotional scenario.  In his amazingly popular Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne had included a vignette of one Maria, a young woman who had gone mad after being denied the right to marry her lover, and who now passes her time playing a pipe with a goat as her companion (vol 9, ch. 24, published 1767).  So popular was the scene that, when Sterne was writing his fragmentary (and unfinished) best-seller, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768), he wrote a series of fragments in which the narrator stops to see Maria (her goat now replaced by a dog).  The Maria scene became a favorite subject for illustrators, and as the fragments below indicate, scenes focused on the emotional state of a young Maria became something of a trope.  Many other popular longer works of sentimental writing—like Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771), Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s Tableau de Paris (1781-88), Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782), or Susanna Rowson’s The Inquisitor (1788, US ed. 1794)—were also written in a fragmentary style conducive to such excerpting, suggesting some affinities and continuities between long and short literary forms.  Reading the short sentimental fragments collected here provide some insights into how sentimental writing was read, enjoyed, shared, imitated, and distributed.

The nineteen sentimental fragments reproduced here (with a concluding twentieth parodic fragment) bring together many of the recurring tropes of the movement: the interest in music, in animals, in cash transactions; familiar settings like prisons, cottages, and seaside cliffs; stock characters like the paternal figure, the wounded soldier, or the bird; and familiar linguistic expressions.  While the fragments can initially seem repetitious, reading them alongside one another illuminates how different writers and editors could fine tune the same materials for different effects, sometimes making a sentimental scene into a clear lesson, at other times making it into an obscure problem.

Meanwhile, the demands of periodical and newspaper publishing meant that such fragments had long lives through frequent reprinting.  Very few fragments appeared just once.  Many moved across the Atlantic from British to American publications, though some may have moved in the other direction (see #6 below).  Many circulated during the same year, but it was also common for a fragment to fall out of circulation and then reappear after several years or even after more than a decade.  It was also common that fragments would be slightly reworked–perhaps character or place names would be changed, or moral commentary revised to make the message seem more morally appropriate.  For the nineteen sentimental fragments reproduced below (with #20 as a piece of satire), we have provided incomplete publication histories.  We have tried to identify an earliest printing and US printings prior to 1820 (many of the fragments were published on into the 19C).

These fragments undoubtedly circulated much beyond our bibliographies, and if you find additional publication locations, we will include your information in future postings of these fragments.  If you find other sentimental fragments that you think would make good additions, please let us know as well.


Suggestions for further reading on sentimentality and periodical literature.

While we have not located any criticism focused specifically on any of the various fragments assembled here, a great deal of scholarly attention has been afforded to the aesthetic, political, social, and cultural dimensions of the sentimental in the early United States. In her formative book Sensational Designs, Jane Tompkins challenged sought to expand what was then a relatively small canon of early American literature by focusing on the ideological complexity of sensational and sentimental texts; see Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790–1860 (Oxford University Press, 1986). The essays comprising Shirley Samuel’s path-breaking collection The Culture of Sentiment further complicated the field’s understanding of sentimentalism by underscoring how it was so central to nineteenth-century American cultural conceptions of race and gender; see Samuels, ed. The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 1992). In seeking to map the tensions over racial purity which often infuse sentimental cultural production, Nancy Armstrong argues that cultural tropes about sentimentalism were often routed through figures of imperiled daughters whose futurity was called into question by their circulation or captivity; see, Armstrong, “Why Daughters Die: The Racial Logic of American Sentimentalism,” The Yale Journal of Criticism 7:2 (1994), 1-24.  Elizabeth Barnes contends that Thomas Jefferson’s contention that “all men are created equal” is the quintessence of “American sentimental politics,” in that the idea “epitomizes the power of sentimental representation—a power to reinvent others in one’s own image;” see, Barnes, States of Sympathy: Seduction and Democracy in the American Novel (Columbia University Press, 1997), 1-2. By tracing how the sentimental was often linked to issues of captivity and mobility, Michelle Burnham moves to consider how a wide range of texts (captivity narratives, Anglo-American novels, and narratives of enslavement) all relied on sentiment to provoke “their readers into tears.” As a result, Burnham’s argues that “the sentimentalism of these texts,” their “moving qualities,” are “inextricably linked to the movements in and by the texts themselves across various borders;” see, Burnham, Captivity and Sentiment: Cultural Exchange in American Literature, 1682-1861 (University of New England Press, 1997), 3. Julia Stern argues that the early American novel “brilliantly animates” cultural reactions to the break from colonial control more vividly “than either public documents or private correspondence.” By attending to the possibilities of sentimental fiction, Stern suggests, we can better understand what would otherwise be the “imperceptible underside of republican culture in age of reason;” see Stern, The Plight of Feeling: Sympathy and Dissent in the Early American Novel (University of Chicago Press, 1997), 1-2. In his insightful study of the underlying tensions between republicanism and liberalism in the early Republic, Bruce Burgett argues that “the figure of ‘sentiment’” often became the structure of feeling by which “the dividing line between citizenship and subjection in the early Republic” was enacted and policed; see, Burgett, Sentimental Bodies: Sex, Gender, and Citizenship in the Early Republic (Princeton University Press, 1998), 20-21. In tracing the ways in which the public expression of feelings became central to eighteenth-century trans-Atlantic political cultures, Julie Ellison argues that “the literatures of sensibility and sentiment” from this era serve “as indices of the pain caused by political arrangements from which artists and intellectuals knowingly benefitted but at the same time could not control;” see, Ellison, Cato’s Tears and the Making of Anglo-American Emotion (University of Chicago Press, 1999), 6-7. Central to the argument of Christopher Castiglia’s Interior States is the assertion “that the bodily interior—the space of a newly conceived and self-managed ‘consciousness’ and its unruly other, the unconscious realm of desire, appetite, and a rage,” effectively “became in the early United States a micro-state” which was then often indexed and regulated in the pages of sentimental texts; see, Castiglia, Interior States: Institutional Consciousness and the Inner Life of Democracy in the United States (Duke University Press, 2008), 3.

For readers interested in learning more about early American periodicals, cultures of reprinting, seriality, and the trans-Atlantic circulation of Anglophone texts we recommend the following:  Meredith McGill, American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1837-1853, Jared Gardner, The Rise and Fall of Early American Magazine Culture (University of Illinois Press, 2012), Michael C. Cohen, The Social Lives of Poems in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), and the essays collected in The Traffic in Poems: Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Transatlantic Exchange (Rutgers University Press, 2008) edited by Meredith McGill. See also the Just Teach One edition of the 1786 Columbia Magazine, with an introduction by Jared Gardner.  For those interested in exploring the complex interconnectedness of nineteenth century periodicals we highly recommend the deeply engaging Viral Texts Project:

Teaching Reflections

The following are responses written by participants who have included this text in their teachings.

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