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American Sympathizers: Confessing Illicit Feeling from the Civil War to the Vietnam War

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 April 2018

Department of English, Gettysburg College. Email:
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Portraits of sympathizers recur across American literature, from nineteenth-century narratives by Edward Everett Hale Jr., Loreta Velazquez, and Walt Whitman to Viet Thanh Nguyen's twenty-first-century novel. Together, their texts elucidate why this understudied trope remains provocative. Whereas nineteenth-century literature often imagines how sympathy fosters national cohesion, feeling for the enemy threatens such stability and prompts government efforts to regulate sentiment. Sympathizers may perform loyalty to claim the authority associated with white masculinity. Yet they also gain power by confessing to criminal sentiments. This figure thus embodies fantasies of rebellion, fears of national dissolution, and the state's affective power.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press and British Association for American Studies 2018 

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1 Nguyen, Viet Thanh, The Sympathizer (New York: Grove Press, 2015), 1Google Scholar.

2 Ahmed, Sara, The Promise of Happiness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 4142CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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4 For foundational work on the role of sentiment in defining who belongs to the American family see Samuels, Shirley, ed., The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in 19th-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)Google Scholar; and Tompkins, Jane, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985)Google Scholar.

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7 Writers deployed “sympathizer” to refer both to compassionate, upstanding citizens and suspected traitors; the term's multiple meanings signal cultural tensions over when to valorize and when to punish fellow feeling. For clarity, I use the phrase largely in the latter sense, as Nguyen deploys it. Earlier work on the trope typically centers on characters who are celebrated for feeling that serves the state. For instance, Mielke, Laura, Moving Encounters: Sympathy and the Indian Question in Antebellum Literature (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

8 As of 20 July 2017, the novel's North American sales are over 450,000 copies, and through numerous translations it has become “an international rights juggernaut.” Porter Anderson, “Rights Update: Viet Thanh Nguyen's ‘The Sympathizer’ Sells to 24 Territories,” Publishing Perspectives, 20 July 2017.

9 Duquette, Elizabeth, Loyal Subjects: Bonds of Nation, Race, and Allegiance in Nineteenth-Century America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010), 4Google Scholar.

10 Here I engage with Frederic Jameson's definition of genres as “essentially contracts between a writer and his readers” to consider how the figure of the sympathizer links work in different genres by providing “certain indications and signals as to how it is properly used” or read. Jameson, Frederic, “Magical Narratives: Romance as Genre,” New Literary History, 7, 1 (Autumn 1975), 135–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 135.

11 Alemán, Jesse, “Authenticity, Autobiography, and Identity: The Woman in Battle as Civil War Narrative,” in Velazquez, Loreta, The Woman in Battle, ed. Alemán, Jesse (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), 941Google Scholar, 18.

12 Ibid., 19.


13 Hyde, Carrie, “Outcast Patriotism: The Dilemma of Negative Instruction in ‘The Man without a Country,’ELH, 77, 4 (Winter 2010), 915–39Google Scholar, 916.

14 Edward Everett Hale Jr., “The Man without a Country,” Atlantic Monthly, 12, 74 (Dec. 1863), 665–80, 666.

15 Ibid., 666.


16 Ibid., 667.


17 Ibid., 677.


18 Hyde, 918–19.

19 Hsu, Hsuan, Geography and the Production of Space in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 5Google Scholar, 6.

20 Hale, 667.

21 Ibid., 667.


22 Hyde, 925–26.

23 Hale, 675.

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26 Hale, 671.

27 For examples of gendered readings of The Woman in Battle see Sager, Robin, “The Multiple Metaphoric Civil Wars of Loreta Janeta Velazquez's The Woman in Battle,” Southern Quarterly, 48, 1 (2010), 2745Google Scholar; and Rivas, Raquel González, “Gulf ‘Alter-Latinas’: Cross-Dressing Women Travel beyond the Gulfs of Transnationality and Transsexuality,” Southern Literary Journal, 46, 2 (2014), 128–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 Velazquez, The Woman in Battle, 241.

29 Ibid., 241.


30 Ibid., 241.


31 Ibid., 511.


32 Ibid., 511.


33 Ibid., 511.


34 Hendler, Glenn, “Feeling Like a State: Writing the 1863 New York City Draft Riots,” in Luciano, Dana and Wilson, Ivy, eds., Unsettled States: Nineteenth-Century American Literary Studies (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 189231CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 194.

35 Velazquez, 124.

36 Ibid., 492.


37 Ibid., 212.


38 Ibid., 213.


39 Smith, Adam, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (New York: Penguin, 2010; first published 1759), 175CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 See, for instance, Goldman, Henry H., “Sympathy for the Confederate Cause in Southern California, 1860–1865,” Journal of the West, 51, 1 (2012), 1219Google Scholar; and Jones, Francis I. W., “This Fraudulent Trade: Confederate Blockade-Running from Halifax during the American Civil War,” Northern Mariner, 9, 4 (1999), 3546Google Scholar.

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43 Robin Sager offers a more extensive analysis of how Velazquez appropriates white masculine authority through cross-dressing to serve the Confederacy, in particular. I build on this work to consider how Velazquez's display of sentiment enables her to adopt this identity. Sager, “The Multiple Metaphoric Civil Wars.”

44 Velazquez, 500.

45 Ibid., 501, 502.


46 Ibid., 503.


47 Howe, Julia Ward, A Trip to Cuba (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1860)Google Scholar, Project Guttenberg, 225, 233, 231, 230.

48 Levander, Caroline, “Confederate Cuba,” American Literature, 78, 4 (2006), 821–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 827.

49 Jefferson, Thomas, Notes on the State of Virginia (New York: Penguin, 1999), 146Google Scholar.

50 Wilson, Harriet E., Our Nig; Or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (New York: Random House, 2011), 12Google Scholar.

51 Velazquez, 7.

52 Ibid., 7, 10.


53 Ibid., 10.


54 Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, 121–59.

55 Velazquez, 531.

56 Ibid., 536.


57 Ibid., 531.


58 Whitman, Walt, “The Wound-Dresser,” in Whitman, Leaves of Grass (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 241–44Google Scholar.

59 Silber, Nina, “Reunion and Reconciliation, Reviewed and Reconsidered,” Journal of American History, 102, 2 (2016), 5983CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 64.

60 For an example of the sympathizer's continued relevance to discussions of the Spanish–American War, consider an 1898 interview with Clara Barton; while arguing for US aid to Cuba, she fears that she will be “accused of being a Spanish sympathizer.” In other words, Americans still used the term pejoratively to demarcate “inappropriate” attachments, as they debated when compassion for foreign peoples constituted a problem. The Red Cross in Cuba,” Outlook (1893–1924), 58, 15 (9 April 1898), 911–16Google Scholar, 911.

61 Recent headlines include Scott Shane, Matt Apuzzo, and Eric Schmitt, “Online Embrace from ISIS, a Few Clicks Away,” New York Times, 9 Dec. 2015, A1–A16; and Barrett Devlin, “Some Terror Sympathizers Get Counseling,” Wall Street Journal, 6 Aug. 2015, A3.

62 Hoover, J. Edgar, Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America and How to Fight It (New York: Henry Holt, 1958)Google Scholar.

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64 Parikh, Crystal, An Ethics of Betrayal: The Politics of Otherness in Emergent U.S. Literatures and Cultures (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009), 11Google Scholar.

65 Kim, Daniel Y. and Nguyen, Viet Thanh, “The Literature of the Korean War and Vietnam War,” in Parikh, Crystal and Kim, Daniel Y., eds., The Cambridge Companion to Asian American Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 5972CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 60.

66 Ibid.


67 Nguyen, The Sympathizer, 1.

68 Ibid.


69 Ibid., 223.


70 Ibid., 58.


71 Ibid., 174.


72 Ibid., 74.


73 Ibid., 72.


74 Nguyen reinforces that the Asian refugee must affirm US exceptionalism through his affect when the captain celebrates Americans’ right to the “pursuit of happiness,” while carefully avoiding any acknowledgment that he is either unhappy (failing to attain the American dream) or happy (highlighting others’ unhappiness). Ibid., 254.

75 Pat C. Hoy II professes to being “so taken” by the “first quarter of the book that I believed myself to be reading an actual confession.” Pat C. Hoy II, “Spying with Sympathy and Love,” Sewanee Review, 123, 4 (2015), 685–90, 685.

76 For example, see Elisabeth Mermann-Jozwiak's review, “What I'm Reading: The Sympathizer,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 April, 2016, A23.

77 Nguyen, 323.

78 Ibid.


79 Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 13–14.

80 Nguyen, 357.

81 Ibid., 72.


82 Ibid., 312–14.


83 Parikh, An Ethics of Betrayal, 12.

84 Nguyen, 355.

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