What Is Sentimentalism in American History?

Sentimentalism in American History

Sentimentalism is a cultural movement that emerged during the 18th century and the early 19th century in Europe and America. It was characterized by an emphasis on emotions, feelings, and imagination over reason and logic. In American history, sentimentalism played a significant role in shaping the culture of the country, especially during the 19th century.

What is Sentimentalism?

Sentimentalism is an artistic and literary style that values emotions and feelings over reason and logic. It emphasizes individual experiences and personal feelings rather than objective facts. The movement emerged as a reaction to the Enlightenment era, which emphasized rationality, logic, and reason.

In literature, sentimentalism is characterized by a focus on emotional situations such as love, family relationships, grief, or identity crises. Sentimentalist authors often use melodramatic language to evoke emotions in their readers. They also tend to idealize nature as a source of emotional inspiration.

The Rise of Sentimentalism in America

Sentimentalism gained popularity in America during the 19th century when social changes were taking place across the country. The rise of industrialization led to rapid urbanization and increased social mobility. As people moved away from their families and traditional communities, they sought new forms of emotional connection.

The Civil War also played a significant role in shaping sentimentalism in America. The war caused immense suffering for soldiers on both sides as well as civilians who lost loved ones. This experience led to an increased focus on emotionality and personal experiences.

Key Themes of Sentimentalism

  • Nature: Nature was often portrayed as a source of emotional inspiration for sentimentalists.
  • Femininity: Sentimentalism also reflected the changing roles of women in society. Women were idealized as nurturing, emotional beings, and often portrayed as the moral center of the family.
  • Family: The family unit was highly valued in sentimentalism.

    Sentimentalist literature often portrayed families as a source of emotional support and stability in an increasingly unstable world.

  • Suffering: Suffering was a recurring theme in sentimentalism. Authors often depicted characters who endured great emotional or physical pain but managed to find redemption and hope.

The Legacy of Sentimentalism

Sentimentalism had a significant impact on American culture and literature. It paved the way for other literary movements such as realism and naturalism. It also contributed to the development of popular culture genres such as soap operas, romantic comedies, and country music.

Sentimentalism also played a role in social reform movements such as abolitionism and women’s suffrage. The emphasis on emotions and personal experiences helped create empathy for marginalized groups and led to calls for social justice.


In conclusion, sentimentalism was a cultural movement that emphasized emotions, feelings, and personal experiences over reason and logic. It gained popularity in America during the 19th century due to social changes brought on by industrialization and the Civil War. Sentimentalism had a profound impact on American culture, literature, and social reform movements.