U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Sensibility Rising

Several weeks ago I declared in no uncertain terms that intellectual history has become an antiquated subfield in early American history. I would like here to confess that I exaggerated for the sake of polemics. For as many aptly pointed out in response to my brazen assertion, early American intellectual historians might not dominate early American historiography as they used to, but they most certainly are still around and producing exciting work. In fact, in his response Dan Wickberg noted several scholars, such as Ruth Bloch, Sarah Knott, and Michael Meranze, whose work in recent years has contributed greatly to our understanding of the period’s intellectual climate. I think that it is no coincidence that many of the scholars Dan noted, and particularly the three I here named, have engaged with a cultural phenomenon and a body of thought that historians increasingly regard as ‘sensibility.’

Indeed, sensibility seems on its way to becoming a fully fledged body of thought early Americanists engage with, alongside republicanism and liberalism. While literary scholars have long engaged with sensibility, only recently have American historians consistently paid attention to it, exploring the full depth and geneologies of these ideas in monographs. In the last two decades or so the historians noted above and others have successfully deployed the concept to explicate the ideas and culture of British and American elites and middling classes during the second half of the 18th century and first decades of the 19th century. This seems particularly true in the last few years with the publication of Knott’s Sensibility and the American Revolution (2009) and G.J. Barker-Benfield’s, Abigail and John Adams: The Americanization of American Sensibility (2010). And at least according to Meranze’s web page he too is working on a book about sensibility and violence. Though sensibility might not at first blush seem like a promising avenue of inquiry for the conflict inclined among us (in keeping with my recent theme), I would like in this post to examine what sensibility might offer, approaching it from a conflict oriented perspective.

While everyone by now, it seems, agrees that sensibility was a central component of the period’s intellectual and cultural makeup, it is not quite clear what exactly it was. Much like other intellectual and cultural phenomena that attempt to capture what historians of the Annales would have called ‘mentalité,’ scholars have found sensibility quite elusive. The more scholars examine it, the more it seems that it stems from a wide array of historical forces and an extensive intellectual tradition. Indeed, as increasingly intellectual historians point out, some of the most prominent thinkers of the day, such as David Hume and Adam Smith—particularly the Scottish enlightenment thinkers it turns out—devoted much attention to the ideas of sensibility. In one of the first comprehensive attempts to examine sensibility in the British world (it was by no means exclusively British), G. J. Barker-Benfield argued that we should regard it not as a cult—as it had often been referred to until then—but as a culture.(1) At another point in the same book he suggested that we view the culture of sensibility as “the most ambitious reform movement of the eighteenth century.”(2) Sarah Knott, approaches sensibility from a different angle, casting it ultimately as “a mode of self.” She elaborates: the term denoted “human sensitivity of perception and thus comprised the fundamental link of self and society.”(3) In her delightful book Benjamin Rush emerges as the paragon of American sensibility, who as a doctor constituted an authority regarding the mind-body connection, upon which sensibility hinged as a formula for constructing subjectivity.

Influenced primarily by Barker-Benfield’s work, I find it particularly useful to think of sensibility through the two iconic figures at its center—the ‘man of feeling’ and the virtuous women in distress. As with much else that has to do with the culture of sensibility, the epistolary novels of Samuel Richardson serve as the best repositories for the tropes central to it. Unlike other famous authors who scholars associate with sensibility, such as Laurence Sterne or Oliver Goldsmith, Richardson employed little complexity and was not much of a wit, and so, for me at least, much simpler to analyze. I must confess to never have read a Richardson novel from start to finish, but to have only skimmed Pamela (very quickly) and to have read quite a bit about them—I was quite horrified having read even that much. And I’m not sure I will ever make myself pick Carissa, for it is longer than eternity and even more horrifying than Pamela. I would much rather spend my days reading Goldsmith or Sterne, but it is Richardson who we must turn to…

In Both his novels Clarissa and Pamela, Richardson focuses on young women that demonstrate great virtue under dire circumstances. Both fall prey to the quintessential villains of sensibility novels—rakes, men who attempt to seduce women. *Spoiler alert and trigger warning,* Pamela ends well (at least according to the logic of the times). Her virtue is rewarded as she is able to reform the rakish predator Mr. B., who ends up marrying her lawfully. In Clarissa Richardson outdid himself by unleashing upon the British world the greatest villain of the day, Robert Lovelace, perhaps the most monstrous construction of the culture of sensibility, who at one point rapes Clarissa by drugging her. By the end of the novel Clarissa dies but still possesses her virtue. The third important novel by Richardson is Sir Charles Grandison, in which he sought to introduce a positive model for men. Accordingly, the man of feeling he valorized in the novel helps virtue in distress. Together these three novels capture much of what sensibility was about—most fundamentally they sought to induce poignant feelings, thereby reforming the behavior of men and women.

Now this might sound a bit counter-intuitive, but put in the longue durée of struggles between men and women, one can construe the culture of sensibility as a reform movement in favor of women. Though Richardson was a man, viewed within a broader struggle, he echoed ideas that offered potential benefits for women—particularly if we compare the man of feeling to more crude formulations of manhood. Working under the assumption that men have historically attempted to subjugate women and that women have sought to undermine patriarchy, it would seem that the fundamental goal of sensibility was to reform men—to transform them into men of feeling by deploying the ideal of feminine virtue in distress. However, as Barker-Benfield notes, historically it is not quite that simple, for one can also construe the culture of sensibility as a reactionary movement of men seeking to circumscribe the emancipatory developments they perceived around them. Indeed, there are many indications that patriarchy was not quite as formidable, especially within the circles of elites and middling classes, by the 17th and 18th centuries. Rather than casting sensibility as a reform movement in favor either of men or women, might it not be more useful to conceptualize sensibility as a field of struggle between men and women in the cultural conflicts of the 18th century?

But this alone would not do, for sensibility cut in many ways, not only along lines of gender. For instance, sensibility’s affinity with Richard Bushman’s work on the “Refinement of America,” offers another conflict oriented line of inquiry. We can think of sensibility as a form of cultural capital, deployed by elites to stress their natural superiority. Only those who conducted themselves according to the teachings of sensibility could consider one another as part of the gentry class.

But here too the plot can thicken, since men who behaved with too much sensibility could lose their claim to manhood. This would suggest a conflict between competing formulations of manhood.

All this is to say that I, for one, am quite optimistic about the prospects sensibility holds for early American intellectual history, and am waiting to see what this growing body of scholarship will bring us next.

1. G.J. Barker-Benfield The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth Century Britain, (1992), xix.

2. Barker Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility, xxvi.

3. Sarah Knott, Sensibility and the American Revolution, 1

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Eran, another interesting post.

    The history of sensibilities as a methodological approach is somewhat different from the history of a notion of “sensibility” as a name for a characterological attribute (or set of attributes) drawing from (and perhaps flowing at a level deeper than) the intellectual, emotional, sensational, etc. I gather that what you’re interested in focusing on here is what historians can accomplish by focusing on that more restricted sense of the term?

    For more on the history of sensibilities as a methodological approach, see Daniel Wickberg, “What is the History of Sensibilities? On Cultural Histories, Old and New,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 112, No. 3 (Jun., 2007), pp. 661-684.

    Here are a few past posts from the USIH blog discussing (or drawing from) this methodological approach: category: history of sensibilities. There have been several other posts here dealing w/ history of sensibilities as a methodology (some sympathetically, some more critically) but they aren’t all so tagged. I know Tim wrote a series framing his inquiry in those terms, and Andrew has also addressed the shortcomings (he says!) of the approach. I think if someone enters “sensibilities” in the search box at the upper right-hand corner of the blog page, those posts should pop up. But a great deal of the discussion about the methodology has also happened in the comment threads — which are not, AFAIK, searchable via the same means.

    Other search terms that might bring up some past discussions that take up or take on this methodology would be “Age of Fracture,” “William James,” “Daniel Rodgers.”

    In any case, welcome to the conversation!

    • Thanks for this clarification and for weaving my post into this discussion. I guess that methodologically speaking one can view the interest expressed in this post as a history of emotions or sensibilities, but as you put it, I am here more interested in the narrower historical phenomenon of the 18th century, which both contemporaries and scholars of the period regard/ed as sensibility. It was an obsession (thus sometimes termed as “cult”) with feelings and emotions and often associated with words like affectation, sympathy, sentimentality, and so on.

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