Sentiment and race in the struggle for American memory and identity, 1879–1913

Elson Frank Bond, Fordham University


Drawing on the writing of Thomas Dixon, Pauline Hopkins, William Dean Howells, Charles Chesnutt, and Mark Twain, this dissertation argues that the metaphor of the sentimental family served as contested template for a broader national debate over defining a coherent national identity in the late 19 th and early 20th centuries. This struggle over a nationalized American family split along sometimes overlapping racial lines in literature. The metaphorical American family gained widespread acceptance as a potentially unifying national symbol and as a culturally flexible response to an increasingly atomized and heterogeneous society. In a study of American historical memory in the decades bracketing 1900, sentimentalism's well-established trope of the family, whether consanguineous or otherwise—its creation in courtship, its threatened or actual destruction through death or physical separation, and its unitary power over time—served to promote conflicting visions of potential national cohesion across racial and sectional divides. Yet, the biological and racial associations of the family as national metaphor, especially post-Darwin and post-Reconstruction, tended to heighten rather than lower affective barriers to interracial sympathy and thus often racialize American historical memory and identity.

Subject Area

American studies|American literature

Recommended Citation

Bond, Elson Frank, "Sentiment and race in the struggle for American memory and identity, 1879–1913" (2008). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3303009.