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Book Review: Modern Sentimentalism

1st September 2020

Jun Qiang, University of York

Lisa Mendelman, Modern Sentimentalism: Affect, Irony, and Female Authorship in Interwar America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019) 

Sentimentalism has always been considered the antithesis of modern womanhood. Observing that American female novelists reconfigured sentimentalism in the modernist period, Lisa Mendelman offers a new understanding of this literary mode by defining it as ‘an evolving mode that transforms along with its cultural moment’ (p. 9). Mendelman, departing from a long tradition of sentimental fiction criticism in which cultural dynamics are obsessed over and artistic qualities are ignored, examines the aesthetic transformations and irony of the sentimental mode. Her book synthesises the sentimentalist subfield of modernist studies with affect studies, an emerging and thriving field. Its hybrid approach of integrating historical and theoretical inquiry, as well as reexamining the relationship between emotion and aesthetics, will be valuable to future scholars in affect studies.

Mendelman wisely embraces a wide range of American female authors and assorted resources in Modern Sentimentalism. Her inclusivity, reflected by her embedment of writers, critics and theorists of colour, as well as her integration of lesser-known and underestimated works into her project such as Edith Wharton’s The Gods Arrive (1932) and Frances Newman’s The Hard-Boiled Virgin (1926), is incredibly valuable in modern literary studies. Through case studies of icons including the New Woman, the flapper, the free lover, the New Negro woman and the divorcée, Mendelman unpacks their embodiment of ‘aspects of a traditional sentimentality’ (p. 1) and the incompatibility of sentiment with modern selfhood in the protagonists of five female American authors. Wide-ranging as her selected icons are, Mendelman’s categorisation of the New Woman as an independent group separate from other women’s circles may serve as a source of confusion or controversy among cultural historians and critics. According to Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, all of the images identified as ‘a Gibson Girl, a suffragist[…] a flapper, a working-class militant, or a Hollywood vamp’ epitomize the New Woman, ‘an umbrella term for modern understanding of femininity’. [1] Martha H. Patterson similarly defines the American New Woman as ‘all of those contradictory characters and more’ from 1894 to 1930. [2] Aligning the group with the period between 1894 to 1920, Mendelman tends to understand the New Woman as the earliest type of American modern woman rather than a diverse and broad group.

In Chapters 1 and 4 as well as her Conclusion, Mendelman carefully engages with comprehensively studied female writers such as Willa Cather, Jessie Redmon Fauset and Edith Wharton, all of whom are often misunderstood as traditional and unprogressive. Mendelman’s method of pinpointing the contexts of these authors’ respective sentimental stages sheds new light on the well-trodden slopes of Cather, Fauset and Wharton’s glen of scholarship. In her first chapter on the New Woman in Willa Cather’s 1915 novel, The Song of the Lark, Mendelman grapples with the sentimental career of the New Woman. She explores how Cather reorients sentiment via a shift from marriage and domesticity to ‘art and self-creation’ and probes the ‘New Woman’s femininity’ enabled by the fiction’s unorthodox marriage plot in which ‘self-expression supersedes romantic relation’ (p. 38). Mendelman’s startling innovation in the last section of Chapter 1, in which she joins a heated discussion about sentimental reading and distinguishes herself as a critic by delineating how Cather’s writing thematizes common profiles of sentimental reading and presents a modern alternative, serves as a paradigm of narratology integration and reading with affect. Chapter 4 turns to Jessie Redmon Fauset’s use of sentimentalism in her most famous work, Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral (1929), and examines the ‘tensions inherent in New Negro femininity and artistic production’ (p. 23). Mendelman’s unconventional method of connecting historical materials and theories of racial feeling to the gendering of double consciousness illuminates a long-standing controversy over Fauset’s ‘literary sincerity’ (p. 128) and use of laughter. Mendelman’s research invites critics to reexamine Fauset’s historical reception and the New Negro woman’s unique form of self-estrangement. In her Conclusion, Mendelman offers insight into interwar female adulthood and life after marriage by examining Edith Wharton’s late and rarely discussed novel, The Gods Arrive (1932). Though this chapter is relatively short, Mendelman intelligibly explores the ways in which Wharton uses the modern divorcée to reanimate and reimagine sentimental convention. Mendelman’s research underscores her thesis that the question of sentimentalism’s vexed legacy is central to interwar literary production and reveals new avenues for interpreting modern writing.

Mendelman also ascribes importance to synchronous artists and less-discussed experimental writers. Chapters 2 offers a case study of Anita Loos’s flapper in her 1925 satire Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, providing a fascinating insight into the aesthetic category of ‘sentimental satire’ and reframing existing scholarship on Blondes’ ‘categorical inscrutability’ (p. 57). Mendelman draws our attention to the sentimental essence beneath Blondes’ satirical surface, which serves as a convincing testimony to Loos’s trenchant wit and skill in synthesising ‘categorical indeterminacy’ with the opaque ‘interiority and exteriority’ (p. 22) of the flapper. Feminists and modernists might be interested in Mendelman’s efforts at putting Blondes in dialogue with Mina Loy’s ‘Feminist Manifesto’ (1914/ 1982) and H. L. Mencken’s In Defense of Women (1918), resulting in the compelling conclusion that Blondes serves as a      modern echo of the traditional manifesto. In the third chapter, Mendelman delves into Frances Newman’s neglected avant-garde novel The Hard-Boiled Virgin (1926), illustrating how exchanges between ‘the sentimental tradition, the evolving free love movement, and the nascent concept of hard-boiled fiction’ (p. 89) are trafficked through depictions of the hard-boiled woman and the modern free lover. It is worth mentioning that, in this chapter, Mendelman invests in the interpretation of Newman’s use of irony and synthesis of sentimental and modernist style. Mendelman’s exploration surprisingly highlights the shifting distance between narrative perspective and the character, an observation that coalesces in a penetrating and original comprehension of irony in Newman’s rhetorical practice. Mendelman’s conclusion, via enquiry into the ‘enduring conundrums of sex and sentiment’ (p. 151) in the later twentieth century and the future-oriented concerns of recent media, opens up possibilities for future scholars of modernism and affect.

With this slim monograph, Mendelman shapes our new understanding of American female authors’ reinvention of sentimentalism in the modernist period and illuminates the double binds that beleaguer modern female novelists and their protagonists. Although it is restricted to writings of the American interwar period, this collection provokes thought about the scope of diverse female authors, irony, sentimentalism, modernism, femininity and affect studies. Modern Sentimentalism encourages its readers to reconsider the value and influence of pre-modernist conventions and practices, which may serve as important clues to the analysis of modern works.


[1] Rabinovitch-Fox, Einav. “New Women in Early 20th-Century America.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Aug 2017.


[2] Patterson, Martha H., ed. The American New Woman Revisited: A Reader, 1894-1930 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), p. 1.


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