Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Comparative Literature


Hildegard Hoeller


Eric Lott

Committee Members

Bettina Lerner

Subject Categories

American Literature | Arts and Humanities | Literature in English, North America


nineteenth-century women's literature, American literature, nineteenth-century popular culture, sentimentalism, nineteenth-century medicine, sympathy


Sickly Sentimentalism: Pathology and Sympathy in American Women’s Literature, 1866-1900 examines the work of four American women novelists writing between 1866 and 1900 as responses to a dominant medical discourse that pathologized women’s emotions. The popular fiction of Metta Fuller Victor, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Sarah Orne Jewett, and E.D.E.N. Southworth mobilized sentimental style and sympathetic affect to challenge the medical trend of treating female sentiment as a sickness. At the level of narrative, this challenge took the form of deviating from the domestic and marriage plots prevalent in women’s popular fiction of their period. Through forms of sentimental writing my selected authors imagined new possibilities for female subjectivity outside the limitations of pathology and domesticity. This dissertation joins the critical work of scholars of American studies seeking to attend to the writings of overlooked women writers. I argue that a broader consideration of nineteenth-century women’s literature that more thoroughly encompasses popular fiction can expand our understanding of sentimentalism as both a genre and cultural discourse. My study is in large part a recovery project, aiming to shed new light on popular female authors whose work is still overlooked and remains out of print despite critics’ best efforts to expand the nineteenth-century canon.