Emotional Reinventions

Realist-Era Representations Beyond Sympathy
Melanie V. Dawson
A historically informed approach to realist-era American fiction, engaging with contemporary affect theory, evolutionary theory, studies of realism, and studies of affect in American literature


Focusing on representational approaches to emotion during the years of American literary realism’s dominance and in the works of such authors as Edith Wharton, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, W. D. Howells, Charles Chesnutt, and others, Emotional Reinventions: Realist-Era Representations Beyond Sympathy contends that emotional representations were central to the self-conscious construction of high realism (in the mid-1880s) and to the interrogation of its boundaries. Based on realist-era authors’ rejection of “sentimentalism” and its reduction of emotional diversity (a tendency to stress what Karen Sanchez-Eppler has described as sentimental fiction’s investment in “overcoming difference”), Melanie Dawson argues that realist-era investments in emotional detail were designed to confront differences of class, gender, race, and circumstance directly. She explores the ways in which representational practices that approximate scientific methods often led away from scientific theories and rejected rigid attempts at creating emotional taxonomies. She argues that ultimately realist-era authors demonstrated a new investment in individuated emotional histories and experiences that sought to honor all affective experiences on their own terms.

“This is a nuanced and elegant analysis of how affect is portrayed in what Dawson refers to as ‘realist-era’ fiction. Against a critical tradition that downplays emotion’s centrality to this era, Dawson maintains that writers from this period reappropriated emotions crucial to the antebellum era but did so primarily to interrogate conventional expressions and established meanings.”
—Cynthia Davis, University of South Carolina

“Melanie Dawson’s Emotional Reinventions is an elegant account of the realist era study of emotion. Speaking with authority and clarity, Dawson’s book demonstrates that realist writers’ recognition of the limits of sympathy resulted in novel methods of observation and categorization of emotion. Dawson carefully places her research in conversation with other scholars and presents a compelling and highly readable account of the period.”
—Jennifer Travis, St. John’s University

Cover illustration: Bodily expressions as mapped by “Criterion of the Eyes” from M. L’Abbe Delaumosne and Mme. Angelique Arnaud’s Delsarte System of Oratory (1887) and ”Conditional Attitudes of the Hand” from Genevieve Stebbins’s Delsarte System of Expression (1885).  
Melanie V. Dawson is Associate Professor of English at the College of William & Mary.

Praise / Awards

  • "Among the many strengths of Dawson’s ex-
    ceptional text—which offers a thoroughgoing re-
    assessment that places the revised representation
    of affect at the very heart of American realist literature and criticism—is its nuanced account of realism as a transitional discourse that stands at the threshold between the sentimentalism of the nineteenth century and the modernism of the early twentieth."
    --The Howellsian

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Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 320pp.
  • 7 halftones.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2015
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-07270-5

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  • $99.95 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2015
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-05270-7

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  • $39.95 U.S.

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