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

Peer-Review: 0

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).