Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord: The influence of the American Tract Society on the historical evolution of American literary sentimentalism

Joel Bridges Henderson

Abstract

Studies of American literary sentimentalism usually focus on either the genre's origins in the novels of the early republic or its zenith as represented by the mid- nineteenth-century bestsellers. Such a focus reveals two distinctly different versions of sentimentalism. While the novels of Susanna Rowson, Hannah Foster, and William Brown evidence a genre influenced by Calvinism, the bestsellers of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Maria Cummins, and Susan Warner represent a sentimentalism inextricably fused with nineteenth-century evangelicalism. The evolution of the genre is more clearly explained by the intervention of the American Tract Society (ATS). In its ongoing efforts to convert the nation to Christianity, the ATS adopted sentimentalism, particularly the genre's most conventional trope: the deathbed scene. Adapting this trope to its evangelical sensibilities, the ATS framed heaven as a "home" and death as a "homecoming." Furthermore, the Society replaced the isolated fallen women of the early novels with the puer senex, the wise child who joyously anticipates death and who forms the center of a community of loved ones. With the addition of an exhortation, hymns, and scriptural language, the deathbed scene created by the ATS heavily influenced these same scenes in the mid-century bestsellers. This study undertakes a comparison of the death scenes in the early republican novels, the early-nineteenth-century ATS tracts, and the mid-nineteenth-century bestsellers. Such an analysis reveals the ways in which the Society crafted not only a genre with mass appeal but also a community of readers in which both nineteenth-century and twentieth-century sentimental bestsellers could flourish.