“The Medicine of Sympathy”: Mothers, Sons, and Affective Pedagogy in Antebellum America

Ken Parille, East Carolina University
Vol. 25, No. 1 (Spring 2006), 93-115

This essay presents a discussion of emotion that is both instrumental and cautious. Surveying advice writings for mothers along with novelistic portraits of sentimental mothers and their morally problematic sons, the essay discusses surprisingly ambivalent attitudes to maternal sympathy for boys in the antebellum period. Although these writers endorsed sympathy as a child management tool, they expressed worries that overly sympathetic mothers would fail to discipline their sons. Such boys would develop into self-indulgent, callous men lacking appropriate moral sentiments or a sense of responsibility toward others. Mothers in these advice writings were called upon to temper their sympathy with what modern writers might call tough love, restraining their emotions for the sake of the public good. Besides compelling a reconsideration of the status of sentimental views of motherhood in antebellum America, the essay calls into question the degree to which writers in this period viewed emotion as a natural effusion of feeling or as a device that could and should be deployed for social, moralistic ends.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]