Imperiled Bodies: Sentimentality and Illness in Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Literature

Jocelyn L. Bailey, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville


Sentimental American texts of the nineteenth century frequently featured representations of illness and death that either emphasized or de-emphasized the body. The death-bed trope, in particular, is widely recognizable, to the point that it eventually becomes an object of parody. In order to examine the subject of sentimental illness, this project explores three popular women’s texts of the period—Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s The Poor Rich Man, and the Rich Poor Man; Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl—and the diverse manners in which they represent the imperiled female body. These texts, representing a long historical trajectory, demonstrate a complex relationship between sentimental tropes and the body, as well as between women writers of the antebellum period and the sentimental forms they utilized.