Harlem Types

First page to Winold Reiss’s “Harlem Types” portraiture. Survey Graphic, March 1, 1925.

Character Defects: The Racialized Addict and Nella Larsen’s Passing.” Modernism/modernity, vol. 26, no. 4, 2019, pp. 727–52.

This article examines depictions of racialized addiction as they circulate in New Negro / Harlem Renaissance-era literature and culture. Whereas depictions of white addiction in 1920s and 30s America have been explored by modernist scholars, in our scholarly constellations of interwar subjectivity and Renaissance fiction, I propose, portrayals of racialized addiction have been largely hiding in plain sight. Attending to these portrayals, I offer a new reading of Nella Larsen’s canonical novel and further elucidate the interrelations of modernist and New Negro sensibilities and their respective expressions in literary form. My approach to these topics participates in the recent critical return to the study of literary character. I synthesize the history of clinical and cultural types with literary modernism’s interest in psychological profiles and behavioral paradox. In this approach to figurations of personhood, Larsen and other Renaissance authors point the way: these works insistently render literary character as a site of ideological conflict rather than an expression of temperamental coherence—a perspective all the more urgent in the case of supposedly racial character.

First author, “Sentimental Avatars: Gender Identification and Vehicles of Selfhood in Popular Media From Nineteenth-Century Novels to Modern Video Games.” With Rabindra A. Ratan, Joseph Fordham, Megan Knittel, & Oskar Milik. Games and Culture, 2019.

Abstract: This article examines how the embodied experience of contemporary avatar use overlaps with 19th-century American sentimental literature and cultural assumptions about gender and readerly identification in that period. Drawing on recent quantitative and qualitative research on avatar use and ongoing scholarship on nineteenth-century literature, we offer theoretical insights about the resonance between historical and contemporary understandings of media consumption as it intersects with cultural notions of sex and gender differences. Theories of sentimentalism help us to reconsider how gender is conceptualized in quantitative studies of avatars. Our cross-disciplinary study of embodiment and visceral experience thus argues for expanding modes of inquiry within quantitative games scholarship to more fully capture the interplay between gender identity and individual factors in avatar experiences. We conclude with three strategies for quantitative games scholars to consider as a means to enrich our understanding of the complexities of gender in modern game contexts.

Unaffected: Marilynne Robinson’s Postmodern Sentimentalism. Irish Journal of American Studies, vol. 6, 2017.

Abstract: This paper locates Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980) in the literary historical genealogy of sentimentalism, identifying the novel as an invested rewriting of this multinational tradition. Robinson’s title announces her reclaiming of nineteenth-century American sentimental thematics like domesticity, femininity, and their associated structures of meaning (e.g., family, community, religion, morality). Robinson’s aesthetic practice equally revivifies earlier European notions of sentimentalism—namely Friedrich Schiller’s theory of the mode as a reflection of modern consciousness’s self-witnessing emotional experience. Yet, for reasons I explore, scholars have distanced Robinson’s work from this vexed aesthetic category, aligning Housekeeping instead with romanticism and other male-identified strains of the American canon (e.g., transcendentalism, the bildungsroman). I argue that we can also interpret Housekeeping as a work of “postmodern sentimentalism”—a late-twentieth-century mode that renovates the artistic commitments and cultural concerns associated with this literary practice.


Wharton, in the midst of another gendered form (procession at Yale University, June 20, 1923).

Ambivalence and Irony: Gendered Forms in Interwar America.” Arizona Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 4, 2015, pp. 23-52.

Abstract: When the term “ambivalence” first appeared in 1910, it referred to a psychotic symptom of schizophrenia. Migrating into popular psychology, the condition soon became a neurosis associated with young women and homosexuals. By the late 1920s, “ambivalence” also described an aesthetic value associated with masculine intelligence. Extending recent work in new modernist studies, cognitive disability studies, and the social history of medicine, this essay traces the gendered contradictions of this psychosocial history. Historicizing ambivalence illuminates two distinct but interrelated concepts: ambivalence proper as condition of modern femininity and modernist irony as a masculinized expression of the same set of feelings and conflicts. Edith Wharton’s Twilight Sleep (1927) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night (1934) reflect this interplay of psychic and aesthetic patterns, highlight the essential ambivalence of modern subjectivity, denaturalize contemporaneous scientific attitudes, and unsettle enduring critical assumptions about the interwar period’s literary forms.

Feeling Hard-Boiled: Modern Sentimentalism and Frances Newman’s The Hard-Boiled Virgin.” American Literary History, vol. 26, no. 4, 2014, pp. 693715.

Abstract: Stylistically avant-garde and structurally ambitious, Newman’s under-studied novel The Hard-Boiled Virgin (1926) illustrates sentimentalism’s evolution in the interwar period. A kunstlerroman set in turn-of-the-century Atlanta, Virgin details the coming-of-age of an aspiring female author who masturbates to orgasm and ultimately has sex out of wedlock, all while desiring the passionate sentimental romance she never experiences. Featuring Newman’s demanding signature style (esoteric allusions, elliptical syntax, repetitive diction, odd parallelisms, and generally elaborate prose) and a provocative, if euphemistic, treatment of female sexuality, Virgin became an immediate best-seller and established its Southern author in national literary circles. It is also a paradigmatic example of the aesthetic category I call modern sentimentalism. In the first two sections of this essay, I introduce Newman, The Hard-Boiled Virgin, and modern sentimentalism. In the latter half, I discuss two growing literary interests that inform Virgin’s sentimental aesthetics: the nascent concept of hard-boiled fiction and a pervasive use of irony. As new modernist critics have reminded us, the canonized version of modernism developed in dialogue with a range of practices. Sentimentalism participates in this contemporaneous literary conversation in more thoroughgoing ways than we have understood.


Anita Loos, c. 1926

Sentimental Satire in Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.The Sentimental Mode: Essays in Literature, Film and Television, edited by Jennifer A. Williamson, Jennifer Larson, and Ashley Reed, McFarland, 2014, pp. 36-55.

Abstract: This essay identifies Anita Loos’s 1925 best-seller Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a quintessential example of sentimental satire, a category initiated by Friedrich Schiller in 1795 and, in Loos’s hands, an apposite form for representing the contradictions of modern femininity. Blondes, I argue, is not simply a satire of a nineteenth-century sentimental novel in which a working-class girl from Arkansas becomes an author and a Hollywood actress through her sympathy, understanding, and moral “reverance [sic].” Blondes is itself a sentimental novelone that derides the enduring sentimentality of Jazz Age femininity and of supposedly transparent, “unsentimental” modern literary techniques like dialectical writing and stream-of-consciousness narration. Engaging contemporaneous debates on female sexuality and women’s labor, Blondes reflects the evolving sensibilities and aesthetic interests of the interwar period, and establishes the enduring relevance of sentimental feeling therein.

Other writings

• “Notes on Passing.” With Octavio R. González. Avidly, 9 January 2022.
•  “The Character of Literary Criticism.” With Octavio R. González. ASAP/J Thinking With Essay Cluster, 27 September 2021.
• “The Art of Care: Susannah Cahalan on Madness, Diagnosis, and COVID-19.” With Susannah Cahalan and Victoria Papa. Public Books, 30 July 2020.
• “What Literature Can Teach Us About Living With Illness.” OUPblog, 16 June 2020.
• “Who Are We?: Feminist Ambivalence in Contemporary Literary Criticism.” Review of Selling Women’s History: Packaging Feminism in Twentieth-Century American Popular Culture by Emily Westkaemper, Historicizing Post-Discourses: Postfeminism and Postracialism in United States Culture by Tanya Ann Kennedy, and Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities edited by Elizabeth Losh and Jacqueline Wernimont. American Literary History, vol. 32, no. 1, 2020.
• “Strong Character, Weak Theory.” Modernism/modernity’s Forums, vol. 4, cycle 2, 2019.
• Review of The Modernist Corpse by Erin E. EdwardsAmerican Literary History Online Review, series XVI, 2018.
• “The Quantified Self.” Modernism/modernity’s In These Times, vol. 3, cycle 2, 2018.
Review of Enchanted Objects: Visual Art in Contemporary Fiction by Allan Hepburn. Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 60, no. 2, 2014, pp. 408-10.
• “Resonant Silence: Love, Desire, and Intimacy in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus.” GRAMMA, vol. 17, 2009, pp. 129-44.
• “Critical Thinking and Reading.” The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, vol. 51, no. 4, 2007, pp. 300-02.

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