This dissertation traces a long history of the sentimental literary genre in popular US novels. Beginning with 19th century abolitionist texts, it examines a lineage of books that are written by privileged white authors in order to speak with, or on behalf of, the racialized "other." This genre of text aims to "change the world" via projects of empathic identification, interracial collaboration, and coalition based on gender identity, and is marked by an ethos of solidarity and desire for intimacy with the subaltern. This dissertation argues that the sentimental impulse to "feel right" marks a form of white conservatism, and rather than becoming less popular since the 19th century, the bind between appearing as an "activist" writer and the use of sentimental generics has become more deeply entwined. Across four distinct - but all politically and racially tumultuous - moments in US history, this dissertation asks what is at stake in the continuing popularity and utility of sentiment to express a politics of solidarity.
Chapter One grounds the dissertation in the 19th century, with an analysis of abolitionist writing by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Jacobs, and Lydia Marie Child, and considers how the texts that come out of the antebellum and Reconstruction years offer a framework to think through interracial and collaborative narrative possibilities. Chapter Two moves ahead to the Civil Rights era, and traces the friendship of William Styron and James Baldwin in relation with their novels. Chapter Three assesses Dave Eggers' What is the What in the context of post-9/11, and argues that the generic collapse of "autobiography/novel" mirrors a sentimental desire for empathic identification. Chapter Four considers Kathryn Stockett's The Help as a revision of the 19th century slave narrative, one that rewrites the radical challenges of the form into a tale of white women's progress. Across these historical locations, this project assesses the limits of a sentimental impetus to "feel right" and its profound connections with the histories of slavery and abolitionism. This dissertation works at the intersection of American Studies, English, and Gender Studies, and proposes new ways to think about the politics of solidarity, gender, and racial formation in the US.