States of Sympathy: Seduction and Democracy in the American Novel

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Columbia University Press, 1997 - 152 pages
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States of Sympathy calls for a new approach to reading early American fiction and politics, one that recognizes sympathy as crucial to the construction of American identity: to read sympathetically becomes synonymous with reading like an American. Examining philosophical and political texts alongside literary ones, Elizabeth Barnes explores the extent to which sympathy and sentiment are increasingly employed to construct the notion of a politically affective state. Barnes demonstrates how the family comes to represent the ideal model for social and political affiliations. Familial feeling proves the foundations for sympathy and sympathy the foundation for democracy.
In holding up the family as a model for sociopolitical union, however, sentimental rhetoric conflates the boundaries between familial and sociosexual ties, resulting in a confusion of familial and erotic attachment. The distinction between licit and illicit love - exemplified in numerous stories about incest and seduction - becomes a preoccupying theme in American literature. While such stories have often been read as a manifestation of anxieties about corruption in the young republic, Barnes provocatively argues that incest and seduction actually represent the logical outcome of nineteenth-century American culture's most deeply held values.

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About the author (1997)

Elizabeth Barnes is associate professor of English at the College of William and Mary.

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