“Quite Right, Dear and Interesting”: Seeking the Sentimental in Nineteenth Century American Fiction

  1. 1. Tom Horton

    University of Virginia

  2. 2. Kristen Taylor

    University of Virginia

  3. 3. Bei Yu

    University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

  4. 4. Xin Xiang

    University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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This paper connects research by the nora Project (http://noraproject.org), a study on text mining and humanities databases that includes four sites and
scholars from many areas, with current critical interests in nineteenth century American sentimental literature.
The term sentimental has been claimed and disparagingly applied (sometimes simultaneously) to popular fiction in this time period since its publication; academic study of sentimental fiction has enjoyed widespread acceptance in literature departments only in the past few decades. Academic disagreement persists about what constitutes
sentimentality, how to include sentimental texts on
nineteenth century American syllabi, which sentimental texts to include, and how to examine sentimental texts
in serious criticism. Most of the well-known and
widely-taught novels of the time period exist in XML format in the University of Virginia’s Etext Center, one of the libraries in partnership with the nora Project; the original XML data for three texts discussed below was taken from this source.
The term sentimental novel is first applied to eighteenth century texts such as Henry Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and Lawrence Sterne’s
Sentimental Journey and Tristam Shandy. Usually included
in courses on the theory of the novel or eighteenth century
literature, these works illustrate the solidification of
the novel form. Sentimental novels emphasize, like
Mackenzie’s title, (men and women of) feeling. Feeling is valued over reason and sentimental is used with the term sensibility (recall Jane Austen’s title Sense and Sensibility.) Although definitions of sentimentality range
widely, and are complicated by the derogatory deployment
of the term by contemporary and current critics, the group of texts loosely joined as being in the mid-
nineteenth century sentimental period is a crucial link for humanities scholars that work on the novel and British and American texts in the nineteenth century connecting Victorian texts with their predecessors.
Sentimental texts are a particularly good place to look
at how a group of texts may exhibit certain recognizable
features; sentimental fiction uses conventional plot
development, stock characters, and didactic authorial
interventions. The emphasis is the exposure of how a text works to induce specific responses in the reader (these include psychophysiological responses such as crying and a resolve to do cultural work for nineteenth century causes such as temperance, anti-slavery, female education, and labor rights); readers do not expect to be surprised. Instead, readers encounter certain keywords in a certain order for a sentimental text to build the expected response. Although the term sentimental is used to represent an area of study and title literature courses, there is no set canon of sentimental texts because scholars do not agree on what constitutes textual sentimentality. Using text-
mining on texts generally considered to exhibit sentimental
features may help visualize levels of textual sentimentality in these texts and ultimately measure sentimentality in any text.
Two groups of humanist scholars scored three chapters in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s text, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the most well-known and critically-acknowledged text in the group often considered sentimental. Although chapters
in this text may be quite long and contain varying
levels of sentimentality, the chapter as a unit was preferred
as the original division structure of the text and the fact that humanist scholars expect this division and assign class reading and research by chapter units. UTC was later adapted into theatrical productions, and the idea of scenes (within chapters) may be a fruitful place to begin studying the sentimental fluctuations with a chapter unit in later phases of this project.
For the initial rubric, though, chapters were scored on
a scale of 1 to 10: low is 1-3, medium 4-6, high 7-10. 10
is considered a “perfect”ly sentimental score, and as
such, is only to be used when the peak of sentimental conventions is exhibited: a character nears death and
expires in a room usually full of flowers and mourners who often “swoon.” The training set for this experiment includes two other texts that were scored on the same sentimentality scale, Susanna Rowson’s 1794 novel Charlotte: A Tale of Truth and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Since these texts were considered sentimental, most chapters were scored in the medium or high range, so the categories were changed to “highly sentimental” and “not highly sentimental.” With D2K, the Naive Bayes method was used to extract features from these texts, which we might call markers of sentimentality. Looking at the top 100 of these features, some interesting patterns have emerged, including the privileging of proper names
of minor characters in chapters that ranked as highly
sentimental. Also interesting are blocks of markers that appear equally prevalent, or equally sentimental, we
might say: numbers 70-74 are “wet,” lamentations,” “cheerfulness,” “slave-trade,” and “author.” The line of critical argument that goes that the sentimental works
focus on motherhood is borne out by “mother” at number 16 and “father” not in the top 100.
As we move into the next three phases of the project, we will include stemming as an area of interest in classifying the results. Phase two will use two more novels by the same authors as those in the training set; phrase three may include ephemera, broadsides, and other materials collected in the EAF collection at the UVa Etext Center. Phase four will run the software on texts considered non-sentimental in the nineteenth century and other phases might include twentieth and twenty-first century novels
that are or are not considered sentimental. We hope to discover markers that can identify elements of the
sentimental in any text.

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Conference Info



Hosted at Université Paris-Sorbonne, Paris IV (Paris-Sorbonne University)

Paris, France

July 5, 2006 - July 9, 2006

151 works by 245 authors indexed

The effort to establish ADHO began in Tuebingen, at the ALLC/ACH conference in 2002: a Steering Committee was appointed at the ALLC/ACH meeting in 2004, in Gothenburg, Sweden. At the 2005 meeting in Victoria, the executive committees of the ACH and ALLC approved the governance and conference protocols and nominated their first representatives to the ‘official’ ADHO Steering Committee and various ADHO standing committees. The 2006 conference was the first Digital Humanities conference.

Conference website: http://www.allc-ach2006.colloques.paris-sorbonne.fr/

Series: ACH/ICCH (26), ACH/ALLC (18), ALLC/EADH (33), ADHO (1)

Organizers: ACH, ADHO, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None