sentiment and sentimentality

James Lundberg complains — and with good reason — about the vast influence of Ken Burns’s Civil War series on students, and on the general American understanding of what in Alabama we call the Late Unpleasantness. I sympathize with the grumpiness sufficiently not to question too much of this piece, but . . . there’s this, among his list of annoyances: “Union Major Sullivan Ballou’s never-delivered letter to his wife Jenny demonstrates that the sentimentality of 19th-century romanticism can still jerk a tear.”

Do we really want to be that belittling towards Ballou’s now famous and much-reposted letter? I don’t think I do, at any rate. True, it’s unlikely that a soldier today, facing imminent death, would write in so elevated, so elaborate a style to his beloved. Almost certainly he would not write at such length. But is that wholly to our credit? Do we want to look at a culture that had a strong sense of rhetorical occasion, and embraced a far greater range of linguistic registers than we now can handle, and dismiss its products as mere “sentimentality”?

Yes, people get all gooey about Ballou’s letter, but there are far worse things to get all gooey about. And you could make the argument that the situation actually called for a higher style than most of us, in our linguistically narrow age, can muster. Maybe we could learn something from Major Ballou.