Marianne Noble's Rethinking Sympathy and Human Contact in Nineteenth-Century American Literature is an assiduous contribution to the ongoing scholarly reconsideration of sympathy in the nineteenth century. The book richly illustrates the resurging interest in aesthetic philosophy and psychoanalytic frameworks in early and nineteenth-century American literary studies. Rethinking Sympathy’s greatest intervention is to recast eighteenth-century German philosopher J.G. Herder as an essential respondent to Hume's theories of sympathy. The book's most significant provocation is the notional assertion that mid-nineteenth-century writers anticipate twentieth-century thinking. Noble addresses her potential critics directly in the book's fifth chapter. Responding to Joanne Dobson's claim that we must read Dickinson as “an antebellum author firmly rooted in women's and sentimental culture” and not as a “proto-Modernist,” Noble contends these distinctions are “a false opposition” (228). She argues it is precisely Dickinson's grounding in her cultural moment that explains her “cultivations of a proto-Modernist phenomenological aesthetic” and that “we should notice a line of descent rather than rupture” (228). In Noble's formulation, Hawthorne, Douglass, Stowe, and Dickinson refashioned Transcendentalist theories of sympathy to accommodate changing ideas of how the self could be in relation to others.
Rethinking Sympathy and Human Contact begins by outlining the terrain of sympathy in the first half of the nineteenth century. In her introduction, Noble explains that “when we encounter the word ‘sympathy’ in antebellum literature, we cannot simply assume it means associating another person's feelings with one's own in order to understand him.” Following from this, she enumerates the many definitions of sympathy in this period: “emotional sameness, empathic concern, empathic understanding, mesmerism, correspondences of bodily fluids, telepathy, and other concepts” (20). Noble rightly points out that the tremendous scope of sympathy, then as now, has made it difficult for literary critics to respond to one another's claims on the subject. The introduction then proceeds with an intellectual genealogy for the book's other key term: human contact. Methodically reconstructing the points of convergence between discourses of contact and evolving theories of sympathy and empathy from the eighteenth through twentieth centuries, Noble finds Hawthorne, Douglass, Stowe, and Dickinson engaged in the project of “trying to develop positive terms for what they seek” (17). Ultimately, she describes their version of human contact as “the moment when the truth of the human condition is grasped as an interplay of infinite being, contingent circumstances, and coessential others” (17).
Chapter One reports out the establishing claim of the book—that Transcendentalist writers, following Emerson, approached human contact as something incompatible with sympathy. For Emerson, sympathy's directive to involve oneself in the concerns of others distracted from the transcendental project of sloughing off one's person in order for the self to “dilate into a universal point of view” (38). Noble explains how Thoreau's, Whitman's, and Alcott's variations on this theme maintain that persons, with all their particularity and individuation, are barriers to human contact. She writes, “Thoreau voices hostility toward persons, Alcott idealizes removing masks, and Whitman idealizes negating them” (85). Closing the chapter with a compelling reading of Whitman as a phenomenologist, Noble distinguishes between the Transcendentalist view of human contact as fundamentally impersonal and the conviction of her later authors that human contact is fundamentally oriented “toward sympathy for persons” (38).
As the book turns to Hawthorne and Stowe, we learn that for Hawthorne human contact is “an existential and social necessity” that “often involves ferreting out another person's secrets” (86–87). Yet, he feels that to be truly known would be intolerable. Noble finds that Hawthorne solves this problem by embracing the possibilities of sympathy in The House of the Seven Gables: “Sympathy is the core of human contact, Hawthorne comes to propose, insofar as it is a feeling of care for the other's individuality and a feeling that one's own fullest being lies in defending that individuality” (89). Noble reads Stowe's later works, especially The Minister's Wooing, against Uncle Tom's Cabin to demonstrate the writer's evolution on sympathy. Importantly, Noble locates this ideological shift within Stowe herself: “much scholarship on Stowe's sympathy … has appropriately found it lacking. There has been scant recognition, however, that in works after Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe herself criticizes simplistic understandings of empathy—explicitly her own—and rejects the political sufficiency of feeling right” (166).
The scope of Noble's inquiry shifts dramatically in Chapter Three, where Douglass becomes the central focus. Douglass is doing too much work in this book. He is the only writer through which Noble interrogates the possibilities of Black relational selfhood, despite the dynamism of Black political discourse in the mid-nineteenth century. The bulk of Noble's analysis centers on white readers’ reception of Douglass's writings, which tracks with her interest in the possibilities of cross-racial sympathy and human contact. Noticeably absent is attention to the ways Douglass's work could be mined for insight into the effects of race and enslavement on theories of intra-racial sympathy and human contact. The chapter's persistent de-centering of Black thought and experience is disappointing to see, especially since an intentional discussion of the ways Black political advocates tactically deployed sympathy would be a compelling addition to this study.
Where Noble trains her analysis on hyper-canonical authors, albeit their second and third works, this reader wished to know whether the writings of some newer entrants to the nineteenth-century literary canon might differently inflect the study's expansive rethinking of sympathy and human contact. What do sympathy and human contact look like when perceived through the lens of George Lippard's city fiction, William Apess's sermons, Zilpha Elaw's spiritual autobiography, or poems by John Greenleaf Whittier? Noble is unquestionably the scholar to ask.
Rethinking Sympathy and Human Contact in Nineteenth-Century American Literature effortlessly pivots between patient, revelatory readings of mid-nineteenth-century texts and a transhistorical array of secondary sources ranging from J.G. Herder, David Hume, and Adam Smith to D.W. Winnicott, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Jean-Luc Nancy; to presentations by sociologist (and TedX sensation) Brené Brown to Emmanuel Levinas's writings on relational psychology. Noble's project of uncovering textual evidence of shifting beliefs surrounding the capabilities of sympathy and potential for human contact is a thoroughly captivating one. This work is invaluable for all the ways it will help critics connect to the shifting theories of self and other that animate nineteenth-century American literature and our continuing pursuit of shared human understanding today.