By Kevin Pelletier
concentrating on quite a number very important anti-slavery figures, together with David Walker, Nat Turner, Maria Stewart, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Brown, Apocalyptic Sentimentalism illustrates how antislavery discourse labored to redefine violence and vengeance because the final expression (rather than denial) of affection and sympathy. on the sametime, those warnings of apocalyptic retribution enabled antislavery writers to specific, albeit ultimately, fantasies of brutal violence opposed to slaveholders. What begun as a sentimental procedure fast turned an incendiary gesture, with antislavery reformers envisioning the total annihilation of slaveholders and defenders of slavery.
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And yet for some abolitionists, terror and democracy were not inimical; rather, the latter was in deep need of the former, especially when an institution like slavery subverted the philosophies and endangered the institutions that gave a political democracy like America its definition and purpose. While I am not arguing that modern-day terrorism and nineteenth-century abolition are the same, I do want to suggest that both share a common rhetorical style insofar as each believes in the efficaciousness of terror as a political tactic.
The first wailings of a bereavement, which is to clothe the earth in sackcloth, have broken upon our ears. —William Lloyd Garrison, “The Insurrectionist,” (1831) The ascendancy of love as the defining characteristic of sentimental fiction marked a crucial moment in literary criticism, for it announced a departure from critics’ earlier reading of the nineteenth-century canon as being dominated by the more “serious” works of male writers like Emerson, Melville, and Hawthorne. In order for modern scholars to claim that a formidable feminist presence existed within the American Renaissance, however, they first had to separate the sentimental tradition from nineteenth-century Calvinism, which previous generations of critics had equated with patriarchal power.
Much like the example of paulus with which I opened this book, where God’s vengeance is understood to be a clear indication of his love for the oppressed, John Brown’s violence in Virginia (and in Kansas) is seen to be the true sign of his loving heart and the reason he can be so easily regarded by supporters as a sentimental figure. At the same time that John Brown constitutes the apotheosis of apocalyptic sentimentalism, his actions also precipitated the erosion of this discourse as well, as some supporters struggled to balance his violent acts with his loving words.
Apocalyptic Sentimentalism: Love and Fear in U.S. Antebellum Literature by Kevin Pelletier