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Alum Aaron Ritzenberg discusses his new book, The Sentimental Touch

By Dana Trismen

Section: Arts

February 28, 2013

Alum Aaron Ritzenberg, who graduated with his Ph.D. from Brandeis in 2006, claims, “I love to think about the way that literature responds to social change.” Ritzenberg has found a way to combine his love of English and history through examining these societal movements in his book “The Sentimental Touch: The Language of Feeling in the Age of Managerialism.”

Ritzenberg believes his passion for literature started at an early age. “I have always loved reading and talking about books,” he said. “In third grade I wrote a book called ‘The Greatest Dog,’ which was basically a rip-off of a book called ‘Cross-Country Cat.” He went on to write for his high school newspaper, but mentions that many of his articles were written in a joking tone. True to form, Ritzenberg today says playfully, “I think ‘The Sentimental Touch’ (my next book published 25 years later) is better than ‘The Greatest Dog’ … That said, ‘The Greatest Dog’ has way more pictures—all drawn by me.”

Now the Associate Director of First Year Writing at Columbia University, Ritzenberg recalls that it took him six years to earn his Ph.D.

“By far my favorite part of graduate school was teaching,” Ritzenberg said. “I had so many great students—super-interesting, super-smart, really intellectually curious.” Ritzenberg boasts of the merits of the Brandeis English Ph.D. program. “I think the English department is very good,” he said. “I learned a lot.” At Columbia, Ritzenberg is a lecturer in discipline in English and Comparative Literature. He focuses on writing pedagogy and has published articles on icons such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sherwood Anderson, Charles Chesnutt and the like.

“The Sentimental Touch” explores the fate of deep and thought-provoking literary conventions between the 1850s and 1940s, and how despite increasing technology and urbanization, these forms of language were still able to endure.

“I’m interested in the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century because of the massive social upheaval that was happening in the United States at that time,” Ritzenberg said.

At a time where American culture became increasingly detached and businesslike, sentimental language somehow managed to hold its own. “The world of profound emotion seems to oppose the world of business management,” said Ritzenberg. “But, as I explain, our feelings are themselves subject to economic and cultural systems. Sentimentalism forces us to confront the facts that our emotions—what we experience as coming from deep within ourselves—may in fact be programmed and mechanical.”

Combining feelings with industry and English with historical facts, Ritzenberg’s text is an impressive feat.
Ritzenberg said that the book was not an easy labor.

“When I was working on the book, I would try to write every day (even if just a little),” he said. “But I would occasionally step away from the book for months at a time.” He mentions that this allowed him to “return to the project with renewed energy.”

As for advice for students who long to become authors, Ritzenberg reveals insightful advice. He himself was aided by camaraderie and friendly input, saying, “Over the summers, I met with a couple friends once a week who were also working on writing projects.” Ritzenberg also advises, “Write about something that you’re deeply and sincerely interested in. Write about an intellectual problem that you can’t quite figure out or that your mind keeps returning to.”

He urges students to “remember that writing is a powerful way of thinking … don’t write when you already have the answers. Write when you need to figure stuff out.” As this alum solves questions about the use of sentimental language in centuries past, perhaps he will inspire current undergraduates in their own writing.

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