Page through most general magazines or flip through cable television and you are likely to see several ads like the one here by World Vision, featuring Jeopardy’s host, Alex Trebek, and a cute orphan girl. (I should note that World Vision indeed does good works.) These ads, sometimes with pictures of disfigured or suffering children, are meant to draw your sympathy and compassion – and then your money or time. They work because they arouse sentimentality – “tender emotions.”
That such ads work is not a given of “human nature.” They work because their audience has learned sentimentality – to feel the melancholy of suffering, sympathy,, and compassion – even for people so far away and so different from the audience as orphans in Africa.
People had sentimental feelings in the pre-modern era, but those sentiments were less common and often overwhelmed by practical needs and circumstances. This was true even among family members, who often kept cold-blooded accounts with one another. In seventeenth-century Andover, Massachusetts, for example, fathers and sons commonly wrote contracts stipulating that the father would deed land to the son in return for specified annual payments to the parents, even getting into practical details such as promising annual delivery of “120 pounds of pork, 2 barrels of cider,” and so forth.
Everyday public and private life was marked by a level of cruelty – animal torture, brawling, child abuse, attacks on slaves, servants, and spouses, and so on – that people today are “naturally” repelled by. Only it was more common, less worthy of attention, less dreadful to bystanders then.
Beginning in the late 18th century and accelerating through the 19th, middle-class Americans increasingly learned and taught their children sentimental “feeling rules.” (A few sources on this topic are listed at the end of this post.) In the emerging bourgeois culture, respectable people, especially women, were “sensitive,” they felt others’ emotions, especially their pain, and then expressed sympathetic emotional resonance. A young woman’s letter to her fiancé illustrates this tuning-fork responsiveness: “I feel intensely . . . more than words can express every thrill of joy which bursts from your heart—and every sigh of sadness which is breathed from your bosom.” Those who did not empathize deeply were brutes.
Romance, of course, provided many opportunities for sentimental expression, and middle-class women of the 19th century immersed themselves in the romantic sentimentality of novels. Increasingly, love was not reserved for the star-crossed couples of novels; it became a prerequisite for marriage. Indeed, being capable of loving became essential for having good character. Advice books urged sustained tenderness between spouses; couples’ letters and diaries increasingly expressed marital passion; divorce petitioners complained more and more about loveless marriages (rather than simply about physically abusive spouses). Marriages became more drenched in sentiment — or, at least, were supposed to be.
Parents’ feelings toward their children also became more intensely sentimental, which made the loss of children all the more crushing. Whereas mothers had once written fatalistic, matter-of-fact diary entries about their children’s deaths, mothers in the antebellum era more often wrote anguished, detailed accounts of the experience. Clerics tried to soothe the pain of babies’ deaths by no longer depicting the deceased infants as doomed for eternity – they had not had a chance to repent of original sin – but as innocent angels called back to sit beside Jesus.
19th-century sentimentality focused a great deal on death. Middle-class Americans adopted practices that intensified expressions of grief (for example, elaborate mourners’ clothing). A new form of internment developed. Forested cemeteries replaced simple churchyard plots. In the romantic sensibility of that era, the “natural” scene helped draw mourners into greater depths of feeling and gave them an experience of the sublime.
Contemplation of death inspired melancholy, a poignant emotion many Victorians sought and clasped to their bosoms. In the early 1800s, the teenage daughter of a Massachusetts businessman described in her diary how, as she sat by her window at twilight, “a sweet melancholy diffused itself over my heart. Memory recalled a thousand tender scenes; the silent tear fell, from an emotion, which it was impossible to control.”
Such melancholic sentimentality provided fodder for Mark Twain’s parodies. Readers may recall the character of the late Emmeline Grangerford in Huckleberry Finn: Her drawings of tear-streaked mourners carried titles like “And Art Thou Gone Yes Thou Art Gone Alas,” and her treacly poetry delivered lines about anything “just so it was sadful.” In the end Huck concludes, “I reckoned that with her disposition she was having a better time in the graveyard.” Spoofing as Twain was, his character reflected emerging bourgeois sentimentality of the mid-19th century.
A Wider Horizon
Sentimentality spread into public life. The great reform movements of the 19th century such as abolitionism, temperance, and child protection drew on middle-class Northerners’ sympathetic responses to others’ pain and suffering. Parents brought in household pets to cultivate their children’s feelings of compassion; such feelings, in turn, spurred the movement against cruelty to animals. Displays of physical torment, most famously in stage performances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, aroused pathos. One historian refers to a “pornography of pain”: Anguishing at drawings and stories of awful suffering showed the observer to be a delicate and sensitive soul, another sign that he or she was superior to the unfeeling masses.
Gradually, more and more Americans learned to be emotionally repulsed by what had been common, unremarkable cruelties, such as bear-baiting, lynching, eye-gouging, child-whipping, and wife beating. Many 20th-century Americans found (as Huck Finn had) the florid sentimentality of their grandparents’ era a bit much, even laughable at times. Still, the underlying code of sentimentality and compassion spread. Expectations for marriage rose beyond having a good partnership to having intense companionship, mutual esteem, and never-flagging love. Children became increasingly – fawningly, some charged – objects of devotion. In the public arena, social movements extended the targets of sympathy beyond local orphans and abandoned pets to include virtually every piteous victim, from hungry children half a globe away to polar bears and coral reefs.
Bourgeois sentimentality may have lost its Victorian flounces, but it still works. Those ads of suffering innocents do move us.
Some sources on America’s sentimental journey
Clark, E. B. “‘The Sacred Rights of the Weak’.” Journal of American History (1995).
Eustace, N. 2008. Passion is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution (2008).
Halttunen, K. 1995. “Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain.” American Historical Review (1995).
Haskell, T. L. “Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility,” Parts 1 and 2, American Historical Review (1985)
Lystra, K. Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America (1989).
Pfister, J., and N. Schnog, eds. Inventing the Psychological: Toward a Cultural History of Emotional Life in America (1997).
Stearns, P. N., and J. Lewis, eds. An Emotional History of the United States (1998).