Annotation: Elizabeth Barnes’ “Politics of Sympathy” (1997)

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This is an annotation for a paper I am currently writing on Martha Meredith Read’s Margaretta. See my prospectus here.

Barnes, Elizabeth. “Politics of Sympathy.” States of Sympathy: Seduction and Democracy in the American Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. 1-18. Print.

In the “Preface” to States of Sympathy Barnes claims that her goal in this book is to explore “not Europe’s dreams about America but America’s dreams about itself” (ix). By examining the intersections between “sociopolitical discourses” and “popular literary themes” of the early republic, she asserts that what concerned writers of the period was the very process of “imagination” (ix). For her, “[s]ympathetic identification—the act of imagining oneself in another’s position” became the means for individuals to recognize the “interdependence between their own and others’ identities” necessary for establishing a coherent national identity (ix). She elaborates on this notion of sympathetic identification in her chapter on the “Politics of Sympathy.” In order for sympathetic discourse to be effective, Barnes argues that there must be a connection, a sense of “familiarity” evoked through texts and felt by the reader (2). As a result, many political and literary discourses of the time were built around the concept of “family,” converging private domestic issues with public concerns (2). Ultimately, it is this appeal to sympathy through familial bonds that, Barnes suggests, provides the foundation for democracy. One of the most provocative claims she presents in this chapter involves her explanation for the prevalence of themes of incest and seduction in early American novels. Unlike, scholars such as Anne Dalke, who treat these themes as evidence of social unrest and public anxieties about dissolving class boundaries, Barnes argues that “incest and seduction represent the logical outcome of American culture’s most cherished ideals” (3). In a nation where sympathetic bonds are stressed and boundaries between “familial and social ties” are collapsed, “incest and seduction become the unspoken champions of a sentimental politics designed to make familial feeling the precondition for inclusion in the public community” (3). This account for the overwhelming interest in incest and seduction in early American novels will compel me to reexamine my own analysis of how these themes function in Margaretta. Barnes’ conception of the central role of women in the formation of a “national sensibility” will also help me develop my argument on Read’s eponymous heroine and her effort to construct a coherent American national identity (13).

Abstract: Gish Jen’s The Love Wife (2005)

This is the abstract for a paper I recently presented at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Missoula, Montana.

Reemerging Histories: Destabilizing Normative Models of Kinship, Identity and Nationality in Gish Jen’s The Love Wife

Family and identity are consistently linked to a conception of nationality—one that emphasizes the importance of cultural and biological ties as rooted in particular locales. However, as globalization facilitates the blurring of bodies and boundaries, the resulting changes suggest a need to re-conceptualize figurations of kinship and the self. This paper examines how Jen’s The Love Wife (2005) destabilizes normative constructions of family, identity and nationality, ushering in new modes for negotiating operant transnational dimensions. Her portrayal of Blondie and Carnegie’s family exemplifies American diversity through the interracial marriage of a Caucasian female and Chinese-American male, a union further complicated by the couple’s adopted and biological children. But rather than painting an idealized portrait of the “new” American family, Jen presents readers with a model of multiculturalism in crisis, illustrating how repressed histories contest current kinship practices. I argue that these reemerging histories create a rupture in the family that transforms it from a private to transnational space, opening a discourse between cultures that allows for a reexamination of kinship and identity across national boundaries. Therefore, as Jen exposes the flaws in this “multicultural” family, rending it apart and reconstructing it in a globalized context, she not only alters our understanding of kinship and identity, but also re-imagines America. By perceiving family and nation from a transnational framework, where complex histories intersect and overlap, where racial and ethnic differences are acknowledged rather than repressed, it becomes possible to create new models for self and national identification. Ultimately, through my analysis of The Love Wife, I will demonstrate how Jen transforms our understanding of “ethnic” narratives as merely localized texts, compelling them to be recognized as part of an American literature that is, at its heart, fundamentally global.

Works Consulted:

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