Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC San Diego

UC San Diego Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC San Diego

Sentimental science and the literary cultures of proto- eugenics


Literary and historical scholarship generally position scientific thinking and the genre of sentimentalism as polar opposites according to nearly every meaningful category of distinction. In contras, "Sentimental Science and the Literary Cultures of Proto-Eugenics" seeks to historicize their common ground in the nineteenth-century United States. I reveal how sentimentalism, or the recognition of individual emotion as both an embodied state and a construct of language, functioned as one of the last intellectual traditions to forge an increasingly fraught link among scientific practice, imaginative writing, and political work. Sentimentalism underwrote a widely held theory of evolution that argued a child's habitual emotions and behaviors make impressions on the body that not only persist throughout the individual's lifespan, but also are transmitted to descendants. I demonstrate how sentimental evolutionary thinking in the realms of literature, social welfare, and the biological sciences played a formative role in both shaping nineteenth-century ideas of racial difference and in making better breeding a national priority. To tell this literary and cultural history of proto-eugenics, I draw from a range of primary sources, including popular and canonical fiction by authors such as Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lydia Maria Child, Harriet Wilson, Alice Wellington Rollins, and W.E.B. Du Bois; visual culture such as photographs of Red Cloud and scientific illustrations of dinosaurs; personal correspondence; articles and monographs in the fields of evolution, ethnology, paleontology, and the philosophy of science by figures including Charles Loring Brace, Edward Drinker Cope, and Joseph Le Conte; published records of the Children's Aid Society and archival materials from Planned Parenthood. The dissertation's emphasis on sentimentalism's constitutive role in developing the discourses of race and evolutionary thinking opens the door to a textured account that highlights the participation of figures typically marginal to the history of nineteenth-century science. I also point to some of the ways that "unfit" subjects played a complex role in developing, appropriating, and resisting better breeding projects. This interdisciplinary project contributes to recent revisions of the politics of sentimentalism and dramatically adjusts the accepted timeline of eugenics in the United States.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View