Apr 21 2009

Sympathy–Elizabeth Barnes

by at 1:47 am

Since I’m writing about the science of sympathy for my Sheppard Lee paper, I’ll need to include a summation of the critics and their analyses of the sympathetic response. Because this information is so crucial for my paper, I’m going to start cataloging important passages from these theoretical works. The first one? Elizabeth Barnes’ States of Sympathy.

Barnes, Elizabeth. Preface. States of Sympathy: Seduction and Democracy in the American Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. ix-xiii.

“That is, this book stresses not Europe’s dreams about America [a la Leslie Fielder] but America’s dreams about itself” (Barnes ix).

“In attempting to retell some of the stories of the stories that American writers told about themselves and their country, I have chosen to focus on representations of American culture offered to us by the literature of the time–to emphasize, in other words, American imaginings over American history” (Barnes ix).

“Implicit in my argument is the idea that the cultural imaginary can be as powerful a political tool as material facts and events. Rather than treat specific historical or political incidents, I investigate the ways in which sociopolitical discourses intersect with popular literary themes to construct a compelling and coherent image of America. In doing so I have found that what most preoccupied American authors was imagination itself. Sympathetic identification–the act of imagining oneself in another’s position–signified a narrative model whereby readers could ostensibly be taught an understanding of the interdependence between their own and others’ identities. In a time when American national as well as individual identity was in question, it is not surprising that Amerrican literature brought such issues as identification, unification, diversity, and autonomy to the fore” (Barnes ix).

“One of the distinctions American authors emphasized, and one of the tools with which they attempted to forge their new identity, was, ironically enough, sympathy. Sympahty was to be the building block of a democratic nation, and democracy, so the story goes, was a defining element of the United States. Sympathetic identification–of the foremost elements of sentimental literature–works to demonstrate, even to enact , a correspondence or unity between subjects. In American literature sympatethetic identification relies particularly on familial models. Readers are taught to identify with characters in such a way that they come to think of others–even fictional “others”–as somehow related to themselves. At the same time, the family analogy generates a myriad of problems for an emerging national audience. For example, the long-standing metaphor of England as America’s “parent country” raises questions as to how America can both glorify family and reject the ‘parent’ that has so profoundly infleunced its culture. For how does a nation repudiate that which has brought it into being without repudiating an essential part of itself?”  (Barnes x).

“In this book I argue that American culture’s preoccupation with familial feeling as the foundation for sympathy, and sympathy as the basis of a democratic republic, ultimately confounds the difference between familial and social bonds. This accounts in part for why so many American stories center on the distinction between licit and illicit love and why incest and seduction become recurrent themes” (Barnes xi).


Barnes understands American sympathy in terms of a familial metaphor. While Barnes’ observation is an astute one, I would like to look at how sympathy is also tied to an electrical metaphor. Sympathy as science, or electrical magnetism, creates new possibilites for nation building, in which the skin barrier that seperates gender and race could be bypassed–something the familial metaphor could never do. In fact, the familial metaphor could potentially reinscribe racial difference by including only pure Anglo-American lineage under its scope.

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