Alone in America

Alone in America: The Stories that Matter

Robert A. Ferguson
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 250
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jbs42
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  • Book Info
    Alone in America
    Book Description:

    With more people living alone today than at any time in U.S. history, Ferguson investigates loneliness in American fiction, from its mythological beginnings in Rip Van Winkle to the postmodern terrors of 9/11. At issue is the dark side of a trumpeted American individualism. Ferguson shows that we can learn, from our literature, how to live alone.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06803-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History, Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xii)
  3. PROLOGUE: THE LORDS OF LIFE
    (pp. 1-16)

    When we say, “I am alone,” we mean different things. The phrase is descriptive: we are by ourselves, and yet the words when used have an emotional trajectory. They imply loneliness (a negative state), vulnerability (a limitation), or solitude (a sought condition). The three possibilities are even interchangeable, but each suggests a different understanding of the self and its use of time and space.

    Being alone is also a force in America today. More people live by themselves than at any other time in the history of the United States. One out of four households has become single occupancy. One...

  4. 1 DOES NOBODY HERE KNOW RIP VAN WINKLE?
    (pp. 17-34)

    Failure has no status in the land of opportunity. How, then, do we explain the first great hero in American literature? For Rip Van Winkle is certainly a failure, even though he succeeds in readers’ minds from the moment he walks out of Washington Irving’s Sketch Book in 1819. Rip somehow turns failure into success. Comic though he is, he also represents an important problem, and it is time to know him better than we do.

    “Does nobody here know Rip Van Winkle?” Irving’s lonely hero cries when his community turns against him, and the answer has to be that...

  5. 2 NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE DISSECTS BETRAYAL
    (pp. 35-60)

    The connoisseur of betrayal in American literature is Nathaniel Hawthorne, though he is seldom identified in this way. Three of the four major novels—The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance—turn on the subject. So do many of the most powerful short stories: “Ethan Brand,” “Wakefield,” “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” “The Birthmark,” “The Gentle Boy,” “Young Goodman Brown,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.”

    Hawthorne called these stories romances, by which he meant works that brought together different levels of reality with an intensity that heightened both. Trust proceeds at one level of...

  6. 3 LOUISA MAY ALCOTT MEETS MARK TWAIN OVER THE YOUNG FACE OF CHANGE
    (pp. 61-89)

    Not for nothing have Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne made radical change a background theme in American fiction. Again and again, characters in early American fiction are bewildered by the alterations around them in an unstable present. Anxieties over what was happening were inevitable in a country driven so constantly by uncontrolled development. Perhaps it was just as inevitable that the novel of the developing child—as opposed to children’s fiction—would parallel this phenomenon and become a focal point in dealing with uncertainties and apprehensions over change.

    Nineteenth-century portrayals of children reflect both the hopes and fears of the...

  7. 4 HENRY JAMES AND ZORA NEALE HURSTON ANSWER DEFEAT
    (pp. 90-115)

    Defeat is specific, and we remember it longer than triumph. The world summarizes it by saying “we learn through sad experience,” but like most truisms, this one hides a vital ingredient. The real teacher is not sad experience. The lesson learned, if learned at all, comes through acceptance of one’s own role. Only reassessment, a form of control when there is no other answer, restores the self to itself.

    Defeat thus presents its own way of being alone. The disappointment and cost to identity in it summon the need for solitude, and we see as much in the novels to...

  8. 5 EDITH WHARTON’S ANATOMY OF BREAKDOWN
    (pp. 116-134)

    Although personal breakdown takes different forms (injury, illness, mental disorder), the second syllable in the word supplies common ground. When we go down, we are less than we were, and others see us that way. We cannot do what we did before and struggle with aspects of life previously handled with ease. When that happens, and it eventually happens to all of us, a caretaker becomes necessary, and one of the problems becomes the nature of care taken under circumstances that nobody wants.

    The desire in breakdown is to get back, and depending on the gravity of the situation, the...

  9. MIDPOINT: THE LORDS OF LIFE REVISITED
    (pp. 135-140)

    The lords of life—failure, betrayal, change, defeat, breakdown, fear, difference, age, and loss—appear at any point and often in combination against us, but they gradually become more distinct in the life cycle, and the four that remain for analysis are less episodic in extent than enduring. Fear, difference, age, and loss bring more insistent challenges the longer we live. It is, after all, the matured Emerson, at forty-one, who coins the phrase and explains the concept. “I am not the novice I was fourteen, nor yet seven years ago,” he tells us just after listing “the lords of...

  10. 6 THE IMMIGRANT NOVEL: FEAR IN AMERICA
    (pp. 141-156)

    If you have never been seriously afraid, you have not lived. We all know what fear is, and it is easy enough to find in fiction. Even children’s stories depend on at least a tincture of dread. But if one can find it in any story, it is best studied in a visceral form, and this characteristic proliferates and ultimately defines the immigrant novel. There is no apprehension quite like the journey from home lost to home unknown, and we will encounter it again in the Middle Passage of African American slavery in Chapter 7.

    Overwhelming disquiet, disjuncture, and loneliness...

  11. 7 WILLIAM FAULKNER AND TONI MORRISON PLOT RACIAL DIFFERENCE
    (pp. 157-179)

    Prejudice based on human difference appears in the Constitution of the United States for all to see, and no one under the continuing protection of that document escapes involvement in the history behind it. Centuries of legally justified racial injustice have caused most Americans to acknowledge the fact of discrimination but not its continuing power or the more fundamental impulse behind it.

    That impulse is the polar opposite in conception to what the psychotherapist Alfred Adler termed “the inferiority complex,” and it applies to everyone rather than individual personality disorders. A more hidden but pervasive “superiority complex” is the source...

  12. 8 SAUL BELLOW OBSERVES OLD AGE
    (pp. 180-200)

    The nation was once called “an early republic.” Is it now a middle republic? A late republic? Americans live under the oldest constitution of modern times. Back in 1928, Gertrude Stein called the United States “just now the oldest country in the world,” and in keeping with the claim, the country’s population is older today than it has ever been. Two percent of its people were sixty-five years of age or older in the early republic; as late as 1950 the percentage stood at 8 percent; the count is now over 13 percent and climbing fast. “Gerontification” is the newest...

  13. 9 DON DELILLO AND MARILYNNE ROBINSON MOURN LOSS
    (pp. 201-230)

    Paradise Lost, the great epic on the subject, resists return after loss. Those who survive can only go forward. Anyone who lives long enough also absorbs Shakespeare’s “fearful meditation” in Sonnet 65. Time, “the wrackful siege of battering days,” takes from us in every conceivable way. “Where, alack, shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?” the poet asks, and he answers “O, none.”

    How often can we adjust to what the days take away? What does repeated loss do to us? But we do adjust no matter what it does, that being the way of things, and we...

  14. 10 WALT WHITMAN FINDS THE COURAGE TO BE
    (pp. 231-252)

    Courage is the fourth of the cardinal virtues after justice, wisdom, and moderation. Most accounts place it last, and its icon is the lion, not the human figure used to depict the first three virtues. Courage is different. Although it requires at least as much effort as the other virtues, it draws peculiarly on ideas of risk. Unlike the others, courage means taking a personal chance in a hazardous undertaking. The figure of the lion as symbol suggests danger and raw physicality as well as bravery.

    Because it is also situational, courage is difficult to characterize in the abstract, and...

  15. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 253-272)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 273-283)