American Literature Sentimentalism and Domestic Fiction
Shirley Samuels
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0015


The form of the American domestic and sentimental novel developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Drawing on 18th-century British novels that tended to privilege affective relations, such writing became associated with women writers in the nineteenth century through the rise of “separate spheres” ideology. This ideology was always a middle-class and often a white phenomenon that encouraged the gendered identification of work with men and home with women. During the nineteenth century, women writers in the United States often coupled the anti-Enlightenment emphasis on emotion with domestic plots that spoke to the power of feelings to effect right action. Popular with women readers, domestic novels written in the sentimental style tend to feature a young girl protagonist who must depend on her moral compass to guide her through an immoral world, a path that frequently leads to marriage. Literature that evoked a sentimental response to a particular injustice became identified with women co-opting sentimental conventions to shine light on social problems. The most popular American novel of the nineteenth century, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, used sentimentality to address the evils of slavery. Sentimental literature was also often associated with Christianity and/or forms of Christian benevolence applied to reform movements. Much of the reform literature addressed itself to developing a model of citizenship that dovetailed with class mobility, assuming the goal of middle-class belonging. Despite the sentimental genre’s contemporary popularity, it was later discriminated against as conventional. Since the 1970s and 1980s, critics have worked to resituate sentimentalism in the American literary canon. More recently, critics have also analyzed its social and economic impact, including its critique of consumerism and its circulation through print media, and they have reevaluated its scientific and ethical basis. Male writers and sentimental tropes have also been considered. Other critics, including Lauren Berlant, have sought to expand the cultural epistemology of sentimentalism beyond the nineteenth century to consider 20th-century texts and movements. The most popular American writers of domestic and sentimental fiction included Lydia Maria Child, Maria Cummins, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, E. D. E. N. Southworth, and Susan B. Warner. Sensation fiction and temperance/abolition tracts were among the other contemporary genres that used sentimental tropes. The controversies over how sentimental literature presents political categories continue to be a salient feature of both historical and critical treatments.

Primary Texts

One of the most influential works in this genre is Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Stowe 1982). Written to promote resistance to the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law, the novel sought to produce an emotional investment on the part of white readers, especially by drawing attention to the difficult conditions faced by mothers in slavery. The novel’s key characters are the titular Uncle Tom who travels progressively further south into more confining forms of slavery to meet a heroic death after a savage beating, and Eliza, who dramatically crosses the Ohio River by jumping from one ice floe to the next, ending in freedom in Canada. The impact of the novel can scarcely be overstated even as its presence on the American cultural scene may have been more emphatically available through its numerous dramatizations in traveling theaters. Other sentimental and domestic fiction responded to poverty, urbanization, and the life of widows after deaths from the Civil War. Cummins 1854 is an important novel about urban poverty and childhood, a bildungsroman about a poor girl who achieves Christian redemption. Warner 1850 shifts from the city to the country, following a young girl whose hardships in life are framed and eventually redeemed by Christian faith. Phelps 1869 tackles the difficult work of mourning, portraying affective communities among mourning women after the Civil War. Southworth 1859 breaks from some of the conventions of the sentimental novel by putting a tomboyish girl heroine into the adventurous plots of sensation fiction, although the story resolves in marriage. Harper 1893 writes about the dilemmas confronting her mixed-race heroine in the post–Civil War United States.

  • Cummins, Maria. The Lamplighter, or, An Orphan Girl’s Struggles and Triumphs. London: William Nicholson and Sons, 1854.

    A key text in the literature on poverty and childhood, the novel opens with an impoverished young girl watching a lamplighter progress along a city street and follows her upbringing as she achieves both economic survival and Christian redemption.

  • Harper, Frances E. W. Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted. 2d ed. Philadelphia: Garrigues Brothers, 1893.

    Written by an activist poet and novelist, Iola Leroy follows the shameful history of slavery through to the post–Civil War struggles for dignity and redemption.

  • Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. The Gates Ajar. Boston: Osgood and Fields, 1869.

    In this immensely popular post–Civil War novel, the difficulty of Christian resignation in the face of loss is combined with the ability of women characters to find solace and inspiration in each other.

  • Southworth, Emma. The Hidden Hand. Chicago: M. A. Donohue, 1859.

    Capitola, the heroine of Southworth’s The Hidden Hand, is a self-supporting and independent heroine who dresses as a boy and fights in duels; even though her story ends in marriage, this sensational novel might be read as the counterexample to sentimental and domestic fiction. Southworth’s heroine Capitola is unlike traditional sentimental heroines; she, like the story-paper, is a hybridizing force of gender norms and national cohesion.

  • Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Library of America. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1982.

    Originates or builds upon many of the conventions of sentimentalism, including direct address of the reader, asking the reader to forge emotional bonds with those in need (the enslaved), and the death of a beautiful girl. Stowe’s novel gave birth to the Uncle Tom stereotype, the selfless black servant who is loyal to his white owner’s whims. Much criticism was leveled at the novel in the twentieth century, particularly Stowe’s perpetuation of black stereotypes and her endorsement of colonization at the book’s end. Originally published in 1852.

  • Warner, Susan B. The Wide, Wide World. London: William Nicholson and Sons, 1850.

    Following the “recovery” of this novel through the writing of Jane Tompkins, this novel became available for classroom use. Its main character, Ellen Montgomery, is sent to live with the unfortunately named Aunt Fortune because of the illness and subsequent death of her mother. Her trials and tribulations as a city girl who must learn to live in the rough world of the country as well as to locate Christian forbearance made this novel a runaway best seller.

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