Reading “Leaves From the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian” as Sentimentalism

Reading any biographical information on Sui Sin Far (there is a good brief one in note 1 of the article I’m using), it would be fairly easy to make a connection between Far’s memoir-essay and Homi Bhabha’s theory on cultural hybridity. That is an option if you want to answer a theory question.

I decided to try to give a genre option about the literary tradition of Sentimentalism, using Min Hyoung Song’s article, “Sentimentalism and Sui Sin Far”. Far offers that sentimentalism “is the name we give to the culture of private feelings made public, a process of making emotions into conspicuous display” (137).

But before Song explains what she wants to add with a sentimentalist reading of Far, she presents two popular debates within Asian-American literary studies. So alternatively, you can choose to use one of these debates to frame your essay and you can make a strong argument.

The two main debates Song presents are the Chin-Kingston debate and the Douglas-Tompkins debate. She draws a parallel between the two debates by claiming they both revolve around the popularity and commercial success of a text, and whether this is a negative or positive quality making it worthy of close reading.

Chin-Kingston debate:

Deals with a gendered versus a political reading. Song uses Frank Chin, an editor of a well-known anthology of Asian American literature, as one of the more vocal examples of critics making an a priori assumption of what being Asian-American means, and therefore which texts should be taught. This vision is largely masculine, heroic, and explicitly political in its resistance. In contrast, the writer Maxine Hong Kingston (whose popularity Song claims Chin takes issue with) deals with both ethnicity and gender in her work. Her work then, challenges this an underlying assumption that popular writers, especially dealing with female oppression, can’t qualify as successful resistance literature and therefore do not deserve prominence.

If you wanted to write critically about this debate (the majority of it is covered in the first two pages of the article) you would have to relate your text to the “uneasy legacy of pitting feminism against…‘ethnopolitical critique’” (135). You can look for examples of where sentimentalist writers (particularly female writers according to Song) either follow or challenge the Asian-American patriarchy that ascribes “desirable traits such as originality, daring physical courage, and creativity under the rubric of masculinity” (135).

For example, Far complicates this because she remembers as a young girl fantasizing about heroic deeds, and she attributes it to her Chinese heritage. However, she clearly follows the sentimentalist conventions when talking about her personal experiences or gives singular accounts of Asian-American women marrying white men. You can also add to this debate by choosing a male writer that seems to be writing in the sentimentalist tradition, to ask what qualifies as masculine or feminine (Junot Diaz or Ralph Ellison could work here. If anyone has read David Henry Hwang’s short play M.Butterfly, that could be really interesting in this debate).

Douglas-Tompkins debate:

Ann Douglas (whose definition of sentimentalism Song is using) sides against the genre because of its roots in “religious populism”, or the didacticism of sentimentalist texts trying to impart Christian values onto oppressed groups. She argues that “Sentimentalism…never exists except in tandem with failed political consciousness” (137). Again, like the Chin-Kingston debate, critics assume there is a divide between feminist and racial readings because the popularity of sentimental texts from the feminine perspective are regarded as distracting from and trivializing the racial concerns that require active resistance. Sui Sin Far’s writing is so highly debated because her writing doesn’t fit neatly into either category.

Jane Tompkins argues that if the popularity of a sentimentalist writers in the 19th century signals their being overly parochial, it’s a fault of the modern reader and not a shortcoming of the writer. Instead, Douglas suggests that their popularity signals their importance rather than deserving criticism.

 

Song departs slightly from these arguments, siding more with Tompkins, by focusing on the Christian roots of American sentimentalism. While she agrees that there’s reformism and therefore oppression implied, she says you can’t ignore the fact that a Christian education allows oppressed groups a way to navigate a culture they would otherwise not have a voice in (138 and note 3 on 148). If you want to focus on this part of the argument, you can possibly also use Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

 

Other texts that I think can best relate to this article, possibly under the sentimentalist genre, are Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Fun Home, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, possibly some of Brooks’ poems. Also Bartleby (if looking at the morality of Christian values, or the apparent lack of feeling/attachment in Bartleby) and the previous suggestions of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao or Invisible Man if examining masculinity.



8 Responses to “Reading “Leaves From the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian” as Sentimentalism”

  1.   atr trailing stop Says:

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