Sentimental vs. Realistic Techniques: Modern African-American Questions Addressed in Contemporary and 19th Century American Fiction
Despite critical caveats about literary quality, the use of sentimental techniques in novels that attempt to precipitate social change are ultimately more persuasive than the use of modernist techniques in similarly motivated social activist novels. Therefore, sentimental strategies that encourage readers to identify with idealized characters and familiar, even formulaic plots allow sentimental novels to act as more popularly persuasive vehicles for social change than modernist novels that deploy realistic techniques through less obvious strategies of identifying with protagonists and which present more morally complex scenarios.
One of the greatest strengths of the sentimental novel is its ability to elicit empathy. Although a literary critic may blanch and the use of such devices as stock characters and idealized moral scenarios in sentimental novels, as deployed most vividly in such works as Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Plum Bun by Jessie Redmond Fauset, these sentimental techniques reach a larger audience on a more visceral level than the harder-to-identify with and more distanced modern literary devices of, for example Nella Larson's Passing. In the sentimental novels, unlike Passing, the ordinary reader, regardless of his or her race or initial political persuasion, was able to enter the heart of oppressed African-Americans characters through sentimental techniques, and identify with the characters that suffer, rather than to view the characters with the detached objectivity encouraged by Larson's modernism.
This empathy the sentimental novel is able to elicit is far greater than the more complex identification elicited from more realistic texts. The power of sentimentalism, as embodied in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is perhaps best exemplified in its subtitle, "Life Among the Lowly" -- in other words, Stowe aims to give the reader a vivid sense of what it means to live as an African-American slave, and to feel as a slave, rather than an objective debate upon the issue that was raising in the America of her day and age. The novel begins with a young African-American woman named Eliza who is likely to be forced to give up her child, and fears every moment that she will be torn away from her husband, because she is in bondage. Lest the reader immediately protest the racism in the scenario, as the characters deigned to elicit the reader's foremost sympathy are largely of partial, rather than complete African-American heritage, this could also be said of Larson's modernist Passing as well as Plum Bun, both works of African-American authors. All three readers use multiracial characters to complicate the societal issues being debated in their narrative contexts.
The empathetic texture of the narrative of Harriet Beecher Stowe is demonstrated as she uses not race or different degrees of racial status so much as motherhood and fatherhood to draw her largely, assumed White reader into her world of the 'lowly' -- by encouraging a common humanity, that is, of Eliza's having a child and wishing to engage in a moral and socially acknowledged marital union, Stowe drew upon common sentimental reader supposition of what it meant to be good Christian and a good American. African-Americans, suggested Stowe, were fundamentally the same as Whites, because all human beings, regardless of race, were capable of feeling and sentiment towards their families. The need for freedom, suggested Stowe, was fierce within the human heart, and the need to honor family was the most pressing need of all, particularly for those of the female gender. Of Uncle Tom, one character states, "This black fellow, --who is he ... A true fellow, who went to Canada more than a year ago. He heard, after he got there, that his master was so angry at him for going off that he had whipped his poor old mother; and he has come all the way back to comfort her, and get a chance to get her away." (Stowe 167)
This empathetic identification, in contrast to a realistic novel like Passing that takes no sides as to rightness or wrongness, is openly solicited both of the reader and of the wavering White characters in Stowe's novel. One woman, confronted with the hiding Eliza, chides her Senator husband, who is like a slave, the chapter's title proclaims, just a man like any other man, when confronted with a pleading wife and a woman like Eliza who desires to protect her baby. Thus, as the man melts to Eliza and to his wife, the Whites and Blacks valorized by Stowe all emerge as idealized individuals. "O, nonsense, John! --You can talk all night, but you wouldn't do it. I put it to you, John, --would you now turn away a poor, shivering, hungry creature from your door, because he was a runaway? Would you, now?" (Stowe 122-123)
The complicated questions that a modernist author might ask in a realistic novel, for example, of validating the system of slavery by only helping one individual slave, for example, rather than striving to enact legal or social change are less important than alleviating the immediate emotional suffering of Eliza. "I should like to see you doing that, John -- I really should! Turning a woman out of doors in a snowstorm, for instance; or may be you'd take her up and put her in jail, wouldn't you? You would make a great hand at that!" (Stowe 123) Stowe makes open use of the 'pathetic' nature of the female gender to further her cause, because she knows it will likely persuade her reading public.
This extreme moral claim upon the reader's affections, the sentimental extremity of the situations whereby characters are constantly forced to chose between freedom and family, between duty and their impulses to freedom, forces the reader to ask him or herself, what would I do in such a situation, were I confronted with a runaway slave -- and Stowe hoped that her Northern readership, quite clearly, would answer this sentimental plea to the heart, not with questions of law or debates over the proper role of women, but with simple and heartfelt actions that would help African-Americans in bondage.
Plum Bun, like Uncle Tom's Cabin, also has a subtitle -- "A Novel without a Moral." Unlike the supremely moral and freedom and family focused individuals that populate the White-authored Stowe text, Jessie Redmon Faucet's Plum Bun is a creation of an African-American author, writing during the fullest flowering of the Harlem Renaissance. Faucet's subtitle suggests, implicitly, that her main character's desire to 'market' her new persona as white, like a 'plum bun,' rather than to disabuse other characters of the fact that she is not Caucasian is neither good nor bad. Admittedly, unlike her sister Virginia, a dark-skinned and ambitious teacher, Angela, "had no desire to perfect." Angela, the narrator suggests, is more apt to desire to experience life and romance -- the perfect heroine of a romantic novel. (Faucet 12)
Rather, the woman Angela does what many might in a similar situation, because she is an ordinary woman, looking for love, not high-minded self-improvement. The reader is encouraged to identify with the main protagonist in a sentimental fashion, but not out of Christian morality, as in Stowe, but in terms of sentimental identification with the temptation of living as an fun-loving art student in Greenwich village, as opposed to living the humble "narrow unsparkling" life of the girl's parents and sister who cannot pass as successfully as she can amongst whites. (Faucet 11) Like every true sentimental heroine, the protagonist also falls in love quickly, which makes her deception more excusable and of the heart, rather than of the head and of ambition to the sympathetic reader.
As Angela Murray's parents have 'conveniently' died, leaving her a poor orphan with little resources, moreover, Angela's need to chose between White and black society appears less acutely cruel, or a betrayal, and more a refusal to be persecuted by assumptions and conventions that deny her evident natural youthful urges woman. When her fiancee and friends reject her after her deception is revealed, the reader does not ponder the morality of Angela's actions, of refusing to reveal what she has done, rather, the reader cheers on Angela's cheeky defiance when confronted with the supposed horror at her deception. Much like the horror at breaking the law by harboring a slave, the reader's identification with the woman scorned creates a sense of 'oneness' with the protagonist, regardless of the reader's race -- for who has not be spurned by friends or a lover, because of a perceived fault that is really no fault at all? Who has not chosen family (Stowe) or love (Faucet) over submitting to duty with no evident reward?
Although not as idealized as Stowe's Christian uncle Tom, thus Angela has resonance in her depiction with the wronged Eliza and Cassie, as a light-skinned and lovely being who is spurned as 'unlike' by blacks who are the more naked victims of racism, and whom White society castigates if she refuses…