Sentimental Journeys

Among the best pieces in Joyce Carol Oates‘ latest collection of essays, In Rough Country, is a wide-ranging overview of the novels of Cormac McCarthy. Discussing McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy” of novels, she makes an interesting digression:

[T]he closely linked novels of the Border Trilogy are a tribute, in their warmly sympathetic depiction of the lives of young ranch hands in Texas and New Mexico in the 1950s, to such traditional values as friendship, loyalty, compassion, courage, physical endurance and (male) stoicism; though suffused with nostalgia for a way of life rapidly coming to an end in the Southwest in the decade following the end of World War II, for the most part the novels avoid sentimentality. (Why “sentimentality” need be avoided in serious literature, as it’s rarely avoided by serious people in actual life, is another issue.)

As a reviewer who’s dinged plenty of novels for “sentimentality”—emotional string-pulling, florid observations, cliched tributes to love, family, fellow-feeling, etc—that parenthetical is a little hard for me to get my head around. That’s especially true considering that Oates’ fiction (at least her “serious literature”) is marked by a steely avoidance of sentiment, even when she’s working through plots about family tragedies. (Her 1981 story collection, A Sentimental Education, its title snitched from Flaubert, doesn’t appear to be sentimental at all. Oates is also featured in a book about contemporary Irish-American women writers titled Too Smart to Be Sentimental.)

Lacking a definition from Oates about “sentimentality,” it’s hard to say much about her perception of it. But I suspect she may be suggesting that readers are less willing to submit to a high emotional pitch in fiction, at least not the way they do with movies, which can be heavily sentimental and still earn high praise. (The first example I can think of is Charlie Chaplin‘s City Lights, a film I always sniffle at the end of, though of course high-art weepers didn’t die in the 1930s.) Serious fiction, Oates implies, is less willing to let us indulge feelings of nostalgia—its goal is to make us question those feelings, which may be why we have so few (any?) novels about happy childhoods.

I’m still hard-pressed to think of fiction I admired because it was “sentimental,” which may be a function of what I’m reading or how I’m reading it. But I’m open to recommendations of books that successfully pulled it off.

10 thoughts on “Sentimental Journeys

  1. “I want to submit that people who denounce the sentimental are generally unaware of what sentiment is.” – Vladimir Nabokov, “Bleak House” lecture, Lectures of Literature, p. 86.

    This is probably not much help, but VN discusses the issue, at least.

    “Because” is going to be a tough standard, since I assume that the book, whatever it is, is also well-written, funny, thoughtful, etc.

      1. My first thought is that A Christmas Carol is unlike a lot of contemporary fiction in that it has a particular goal—to enliven the spirit of Christian kindness in its readers—that lends itself to sentimentality. So in that case the question isn’t so much whether it should be more or less sentimental but how effective it is within (and to a modern reader in spite of) its sentimental goals. Fiction is rarely so goal-oriented, or at least its goals are little more ambiguous. To pick Oates as an example, “The Gravedigger’s Daughter” covers the role of abusive men in one woman’s life, and the way an obscured piece of family history (in this case Jewish ancestry) fights its way to be heard. There are plenty of visceral, brutal scenes of violence in that novel, and it ultimately has a redemptive cast to it—Oates very much wants me to feel something in reaction to its heroine’s life, and for me it’s a measure of the book’s success that I do feel something. But I wouldn’t call that feeling “sentimental”—she isn’t sweetening the tale, or making that redemption easy. I’m drifting into equating “sentimental” with “simplistic,” but barring an explanation from Oates, I’m not sure how else to define it.

      2. Ah. Contemporary fiction. What do I know from contemporary fiction.
        If you don’t think A Christmas Carol “pulled it off” then there won’t be anything.
        Same issue with the “happy childhood” fiction. Does 19th century German fiction count? There were a lot of happy children in 19th century German fiction. Goethe, Hoffmann, Stifter.
        I’m having a similar problem with the word “beauty,” equating it with “simplistic,” having to fight my way back to something more complex. So I sympathize.

  2. I think it’s Randall Jarrell who says somewhere that “sentimentality is a failure of method, not of character.” To double-quote, I think Jarrell is getting at something close to what William Kittredge said, that writers have to be willing to “walk the tightrope of sentimentality.” Writers fear sentimentality because the charge seems to point to some flaw in the writer’s character–dishonesty, failure to work hard enough to avoid it, childish thinking, etc. The difference between sentiment (which I’ve heard defined as an earned emotional response from the reader) and sentimentality (begging the reader to feel something) is not the subject matter or the emotion involved, but largely in how the thing is said, how the emotional moment is argued for, not just at the moment, but throughout the fiction.

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  4. When you move a few degrees away from “high literary” fiction, sentimentality, for better or worse, becomes pretty easy to find. James Hilton’s “Goodbye Mr. Chips” is a perfect example of a sentimental middlebrow bestseller (which, for the record, makes me cry). Great children’s literature abounds in sentiment — the death of Charlotte in E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” or the entire nostalgic cast of Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows.” Fantasists and even science fiction writers can be refreshingly unafraid of sentimentality — Ray Bradbury, for instance, or Daniel Keyes in “Flowers for Algernon” (which also makes me cry).

    But there are undoubtedly plenty of mainstream modern writers who go, at least sometimes, for the “high emotional pitch.” I know that the crying scenes at the conclusions of Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural” and Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day” hit me very hard. Sentimental? I don’t know. But soulful, absolutely.

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