Review: Apocalyptic Sentimentalism
Kevin Pelletier. Apocalyptic Sentimentalism: Love and Fear in U.S. Antebellum Literature. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2015. xiv+256 pp. ISBN 978-0-8203-3948-1.
In 1853, Harriet Beecher Stowe claimed that she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin because she “trembled at the coming day of wrath” bearing down on the nation because of the sins of slavery (97). She was not alone in that fear. Nineteenth-century Americans believed in a God who was active in human affairs, sometimes as a beneficent Providence, but at other times as a wrathful agent of justice. This conviction that the end of the world was coming soon, perhaps in the form of cataclysmic violence, stirred American imaginations. In Apocalyptic Sentimentalism: Love and Fear in U.S. Antebellum Literature, Kevin Pelletier argues that apocalyptic fear was a key ingredient in the formation of antislavery sentiment.
Pelletier traces the development of a rhetorical tradition he calls “apocalyptic sentimentalism.” He focuses on antislavery writers who appealed to readers’ sentiment, striving to produce feelings of compassion that would forge affective bonds between them and the enslaved. They hoped these bonds would grow strong enough to challenge the deeply engrained system of slavery. Pelletier argues that many such authors were not convinced that demonstrations of love alone could produce feelings of love. Rather, they paired love with the dread of a punishing God to move hearts. They saw divine vengeance as “an expression of God’s love” and a “repercussion for failing to love” (2). This pairing of affection and fear in the action of God forms the essence of Pelletier’s capacious understanding of “apocalypse,” which encompasses more than eschatology. In his words, “apocalypse is a warning that God will scourge reprobates for their sinful ways,” an ever-present threat of divine action (12).
Some authors used the terror this warning produced “to augment love’s force” (4). Pelletier places David Walker’s Appeal at the beginning of this tradition. Walker reminded readers “that there are consequences if they fail to cultivate a loving heart” (42). However, his emphasis on the threat of religious violence negated his rhetorical purpose. Rather than draw closer in love, readers recoiled in horror from the problems of slavery. Inspired by Walker, Maria W. Stewart challenged “the dual oppressions of racism and patriarchy” (60). By balancing the threat of apocalypse with the hope of racial uplift, Stewart made apocalyptic sentimentalism a viable strategy. Harriet Beecher Stowe put this tactic to its most famous use in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She appended to the novel a warning that God monitored American injustice, so that readers would both “weep over the sorrows of the slave” and “remain mindful of and even fear the possible apocalyptic consequences they might suffer because of their sins” (98).
Others styled themselves as incarnations of a loving God’s retribution. Pelletier argues that Nat Turner should be understood as the fulfillment of Walker’s warning that the time for repentance over slavery had passed. In Southampton, God exerted judgment through the violence of slave rebellion. Similarly, Stowe used the protagonist of her second antislavery novel, Dred, to suggest that divine vengeance could be expressed through black bodies. But it is John Brown who represented the “most successful rendition of this strategy,” according to Pelletier (155). Brown and his contemporaries understood his raid on Harper’s Ferry as an expression of divine love. When asked following his raid if he considered himself to be “an instrument of Providence,” Brown answered, “I do” (161). At the same time, he explained his actions as motivated by “sympathy with the oppressed” in accordance with the Golden Rule (160). Brown challenged Americans to see bloodshed as a sign of love, but few could. Americans’ failure to understand Brown’s synthesis of violence and love signaled the end of this discourse. The Civil War cemented the process, “as threats of woe … sound[ed] absurd when compared to the carnage that ha[d] already arrived” (180).
Although Pelletier situates his interventions primarily in the field of sentimental literature, there is much here for scholars of history, religious studies, and literature to learn about the importance of the apocalyptic in American culture. The millennium was not a distant event in nineteenth-century minds. Their belief in the end times and God’s direct supervision of human events remains most visible today in clearly defined movements like the Millerites or in the rhetoric of postmillennialist moral reformers. Outside of movements, individuals were moved daily to think about the possibilities of divine intervention and to ask whether they were being used to bring about God’s will on earth. Pelletier’s conceptualization of apocalypse challenges scholars of antebellum religion to think more broadly about the implications of living in a world that could be doused in the fires of divine wrath at any moment.