Modern Sentimentalism

Affect, Irony, and Female Authorship in Interwar America

Oxford University Press (2019 (UK) and 2020 (US)); available at and on Amazon

Reviews: Genre; Women: A Cultural ReviewThe Modernist Review; Edith Wharton Review


Image of Lorelei Lee, “intimately illustrated” by Ralph Barton in Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925)

The birth of the modern woman has long been imagined as the death of sentimental feeling. Sentimental literary aesthetics have likewise been thought to dissipate as modernism emerges. Modern Sentimentalism redefines these perceptions of American interwar femininity and modern literary innovation. The book demonstrates that sentiment’s lived and literary form underwent a vital rebirth, not a slow death, in the early twentieth century. This complex renaissance emerged out of the same cultural and creative turmoil that created modernism: the sentimental functioned as a privileged site where the modernist-era drama over feeling, femininity, female authorship, and literary form played out—a drama wrought in the dynamic armature of female character. Modern sensibility coalesced in, and was in turn challenged by, women who understood themselves to be cultural types in the making.

Modern Sentimentalism tells the story of how sentimentalism became modern, and recognizably modernist. The chapters trace this modernization of sentimentality through case studies of the New Woman, the flapper, the free lover, the New Negro woman, and the divorcée. I analyze these icons as clusters of emotion as well as sites of ideological conflict. I further anchor each case study in representative protagonists from interwar novels by Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Anita Loos, Frances Newman, and Jessie Fauset. This fiction takes the straightforward style, depicted sincerity, and other conventions of nineteenth-century sentimentalism and infuses these standards with formal suspension and existential uncertainty. What I call “modern sentimentalism” conveys the unsettled experience of each of my chapters’ central figures, who revivify aspects of a traditional sentimentality while also recognizing sentiment as essentially incompatible with ideals of modern selfhood. This basic incongruity produces a set of female characters who are ironic and ambivalent about their own enduring sentimentality. These women are estranged from both earlier and emergent definitions of femininity, even as we might also recognize their fragmented, alienated self-consciousness as typically modern. As the characters featured in Modern Sentimentalism invariably realize, the modern woman’s repeated experience of failure reveals the flaws in the extant models of her being.

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