Sentimental swoons


Sentimentality is one of the nicest pejoratives you’ll ever meet. Maude, as I call her, cries easily, regularly rams into icebergs of emotions that sink her unsinkable optimism, sending her to the bottom of the ocean, but not before she can remember her happy childhood when every flower smelled of heaven and housed a butterfly, and house-trained robins fluttered above her head, leading her safely home where she lived happily ever after. She always manages to escape or resurrect from her watery grave and dry off her emotions, just in time to plan her next voyage across the sentimental seas. She calls every sailing vessel the Titanic, closes her eyes or changes the channel when the bad parts of life come on, and always thinks in pink. Even her sunglasses are rose-colored.


The Titanic (photo from Google)


However, Maude wasn’t always a pejorative. She was the darling of philosophy and literature in the 18th century; she looked more attractive when she was younger. During much of the Age of Enlightenment, Sentiment had to eat in the kitchen, while Reason sat at the formal dining table entertaining scientists, philosophers, and writers. After a while, Sentiment got tired of eating the leftovers and seduced the master of the house. When she sat down at the formal table and poured her wine, the conversation turned to discussions about subjectivity, introspection and her role in developing a moral sense. Sharing the table was one thing, but now Reason, long used to hunting alone, had to take Sentiment with him when he went out looking for moral truth. Reason always fancied himself the better shot.


Not-so-stern-looking Laurence Sterne, author of The Sentimental Journey, a sentimental novel. (Photo from Wikipedia)


Maude appeared in many of the novels of that era, using her beauty and brilliance to appeal to the reader’s emotions. After loosening the reader’s hand from the grip of cold logic and reason, she grabbed it and took the reader with her as she supped with sorrow, fought off lascivious brigands, and succumbed to both love and terror by swooning. Carried across the stormy seas of emotion, battered and bruised, now aloft on the crest of a wave, now almost drowning in its trough, the reader arrived at port, armed with a moral compass to find his or her way safely home. It was the only way Maude knew to teach the reader how to live nobly and morally. Ever the heroine, she drowned or died in story after story, the consequence of being too good for this world. She always showed up for work again the next day, ready to teach someone else.


Modern and post-modern readers who have grown up eating irony-fortified cereal for breakfast usually feel seasick after riding the high waves of sentimental novels from that period. Maude’s excesses led inevitably to parody and ridicule. She moved out of her manor, where she had entertained well-bred friends with refined sensibilities, and bought a house in town, next to the used bookstore. You have probably seen her shopping at Wal-Mart; the prices make her swoon.


People who write capital L literature want nothing to do with Maude. If she appears in your story or poem or essay, critics will label your writing sentimental, and they will use a sneering font on the label. As you know, labels written in sneering fonts are almost impossible to remove, so you can forget your dream of obscure fame in literary journals. Oh sure, there’s always the New York Times best-seller list, but do you really want to end up like Nicholas Sparks?


It’s probably too late to try to clear Maude’s name, no matter how much we may like her. I’ve noticed that she often uses her first and middle name these days: Maude Lynn*. She was never one to show restraint, any more than I do when it comes to puns. She chose a life of excess; that’s why a lot of people won’t make eye contact with her. I think she will always be popular, maybe not with the big L people, but with people who don’t capitalize their literature. I feel a certain amount of sympathy toward her, but I don’t like it when she glosses over the hard truths or pretends they aren’t there. I don’t like it when she takes the shortcut to happiness, to avoid the winos, addicts, and broken people who hang out at the bus station downtown.


I would like to live in a world with fewer problems; a world where every broken person is fixed. But as much as I would like to get to happiness faster, today I am not going to try to get there with Maude. I am going to go downtown and take the bus instead.


(*Note to reader: Gratuitous puns found on this blog are the result of an almost imaginary medical condition. Try not to judge.)

26 thoughts on “Sentimental swoons

  1. Get thee to a punnery!! Nice work highlighting Axis II Personality Disorders in the general melee of human existence, and literature. Maude has had her place here on earth since the dawn of time, she will never leave and we must always contain her in some way – preferably in print.

  2. I am happy to notice that recently irony-fortified cereal has begun to go out of style; I never cared for the aftertaste myself. I trust the discarded overstock is safely deconstructing itself on the great compostmodernist heap….

    As for Maude Lynn, I hope she’s pulled herself together enough to go traipsing happily through some garden with Alfred, Lord Tennyson, having answered his seductive whisper following the flying-off of the black bird Night.

    And as for me, I’m going to slap some rose-colored glasses on my transparent eyeballs and gather some rosebuds before they drop their petals into the Slough of Despond.

    Translation: classes and conferences OVER for the week.
    Thanks for the very very entertaining—and dare I say Enlightening?—post!

    • A little sentimentality sweetens the pot. Because I tend in that direction, I have changed the name of my adjective to “tenderhearted.” As I mentioned on someone else’s blog comment, I am not a sentimental old fool, I’m a tenderhearted old fool.

      I hope you are enjoying your weekend now that classes and conferences are over.

  3. Hate Nicholas Sparks books. Hated the Bridges of Madison County, hated that everyone thought I was crazy for hating it. The thing I hate about Maude Lynn — maybe “hate” is too strong — the thing I don’t like about Maude Lynn is the obvious angling for tears and heartstrings. What I like is when she serves it up subtly, not like Crunch Berries, but like honey-oat granola.

  4. I look at the world through rose tinted glasses and I like it that way, it is as Oscar Wilde said in an entirely different context ‘the triumph of hope over experience’. I would also almost always prefer sentiment to reason; be it in life or literature. Long live Maude Lynn.

    • Well, there’s nothing wrong with being an optimist. It’s all about being aware – we can see and feel the world a beautiful place and yet see there is a brokenness that needs fixing.

      I like the quote from Wilde. He said many brilliant and funny things.

  5. Jeannette, I was virtually drummed out of a book club back when, for saying that Bridges of Madison County was “Iron John meets the New Yorker.” Another woman in the club told me I was “not a womanly woman” if I didn’t love it. Whatever that meant! (I lasted only two more books before I quit the club. #1: I read for a living, for crap’s sake; #2: I think only womanly women should belong to book clubs–along with manly men, of course….

    • So, is reading Bridges of Madison County one of those coming-of-age tests in which the young woman proves her womanliness? I can imagine being sent into the wilderness with nothing but a tent, a flashlight, and the book. Only those who return weeping with joy may turn in their training bra for the real thing and join the book club. Is it like that? If so, it sounds quite interesting.

  6. I was a little worried there … I thought that second photo was a photo of Maude, and thought perhaps your comment that she “looked more attractive when she was younger” was your kind way of telling us she actually looked more like a Sentimental Sterne dude. Imagine my relief when I learned her middle name was Lynn, as I was poised to have to go there myself, so I was utterly pleased when you deftly served it up on the plate, (however, no swooning was involved). Eye do not swoon. Ever.

  7. Sterne looks a tiny bit coy there, doesn’t he?

    Really, you have never swooned? All of the womanly women in the book club do. We must have a swooning party one of these days and you must come.

  8. don’t count Maude out entirely. I’m a Gen X’er, one of the least likely people to hang out with Maude, but iron-y can get to be too much at times. I always remember a David Foster Wallace article, another Gen X’er who in an essay predicted that in the future, all the rebels will be sentimental ones. I think there’s something to that. Irony is not very cutting or when it’s the only thing you can expect.


    • Once you have kids, it’s hard be ironic. 🙂 Sometimes a person’s ironic stance is just a way to distance the person from the risks of love and tenderness. Who among us can resist the love of a child? It reduces most of us to fools, but in a very good way.

  9. You, and my fellow ‘commenteers’ here, raise so many important, if not impudent, points. Not least of all is that outlandish sentimentality of many sorts has shaped the modern world in far more ways than any of its perpetrators, let alone its haters, would wish to admit.

    Also in the running is how much I loathed ‘Madison County’, an amount that cannot be contained in this life’s allotted time for commentary.

    And though I could go on and on, sobbing bathetically, I will leave you with a third poignant point, which is that I’m *still* sitting around every afternoon, forlorn, by my mailbox, waiting for that day when they send those Sparks bestseller royalties to the wrong address, though now that you’ve sneaked over and painted Captain Spanks on my mailbox I guess the ruse won’t work anymore. Man, I’m getting all modular, I mean meddling, or is it Muldoon? Oh, It Makes Me Maude!!!

  10. You’ve told the story with loving consideration, and made it easy to swallow, despite a few thorns that remain affixed to the subject. Reading such a telling of a chapter in the history of culture and literature is a rare enjoyment. And I shall surely keep this post to show to those of my friends who enjoy the English language.

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