Modern Sentimentalism

Affect, Irony, and Female Authorship in Interwar America

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


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.


Jules Breton’s “The Song of the Lark” (1884), from which Cather’s 1915 novel takes its title

By returning sentimentalism to the heart of modernism, my project unseats several assumptions about modernity, sentiment, gender, and affect in interwar America. Observing this renewed sentimental form means rethinking the innovations that constitute literary modernism. My work reveals the sentimental underpinnings of modernist hallmarks like stream-of-consciousness narration, language experiments, irony, and satire. I likewise overturn notions of sentimentalism as a set of static nineteenth-century conventions and affects that simply persist and recur in twentieth-century writing. My use of authors’ archives and tracking of each novel’s reception history further discloses how interwar female authorship becomes differently entangled in sentimentality, both in the modernist era and in subsequent scholarship. That entanglement leads me, in turn, to clarify the imbricated histories of gender and emotion in interwar America. By drawing on an archive including New Psychology treatises, legal briefs, popular scientific writing, and contemporary journalism, and synthesizing traditional and quantitative research methods, I elucidate the culture of sentiment that animates the modern woman and flesh out her vexed status as an interwar icon.

My characterological approach to evaluating literary affect equally offers a novel way to historicize emotion and to assess affect in narrative works. This grounding in character—and thus in representations of embodied experience—further allows me to elaborate the undervalued affective dimensions of irony, among other key interwar forms. I propose that the period’s crisis in female character can be best understood as a matter of women’s actually lived lives, not a problem of abstract personhood. The coda discusses these enduring conundrums of sex and sentiment in recent media by female artists ranging from Suzan-Lori Parks and Marilynne Robinson to Madonna and Beyoncé. Ultimately, I contend that ironic sentimentalism continues to afford women artists a formal and structural logic for expressing the double binds of modern femininity—a context in which wishing for other options or raging against their lack further proves the point.

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