Modern Sentimentalism examines how American female novelists reinvented sentimentalism in the modernist period. Just as the birth of the modern woman has long been imagined as the death of sentimental feeling, modernist literary innovation has been understood to reject sentimental aesthetics. Modern Sentimentalism reframes these perceptions of cultural evolution. Taking up icons such as the New Woman, the flapper, the free lover, the New Negro woman, and the divorcee, this book argues that these figures embody aspects of a traditional sentimentality while also recognizing sentiment as incompatible with ideals of modern selfhood. These double binds equally beleaguer the protagonists and shape the styles of writers like Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Anita Loos, and Jessie Fauset. ‘Modern sentimentalism’ thus translates nineteenth-century conventions of sincerity and emotional fulfillment into the skeptical, self-conscious modes of interwar cultural production.
Reading canonical and under-examined novels in concert with legal briefs, scientific treatises, and other transatlantic period discourse, and combining traditional and quantitative methods of archival research, Modern Sentimentalism demonstrates that feminine feeling, far from being peripheral to twentieth-century modernism, animates its central principles and preoccupations.