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The Social Self

The Social Self: Hawthorne, Howells, William James, and Nineteenth-Century Psychology

Joseph Alkana
Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 176
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  • Book Info
    The Social Self
    Book Description:

    American literary history of the nineteenth-century as a conflict between individualistic writers and a conformist society. InThe Social Self,Joseph Alkana argues that such a dichotomy misrepresents the views of many authors.

    Sudden changes caused by the industrial revolution, urban development, increased immigration, and regional conflicts were threatening to fragment the community, and such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne, William James, and William Dean Howells were deeply concerned about social cohesion. Alkana persuasively reintroduces Common Sense philosophy and Jamesian psychology as ways to understand how the nineteenth-century self/society dilemma developed.

    All three writers believed that introspection was the proper path to the discovery of truth. They also felt, Alkana argues, that such discoveries had to be validated by society. In these sophisticated readings of Hawthorne's short stories andThe Scarlet Letter, Howells's utopian Altrurian romances, and James'sThe Principles of Psychology, it becomes obvious that characters who isolate themselves from the community do so at considerable psychological risk.

    The Social Selflinks these writers' interest in contemporary psychology to their concern for history and society. Alkana's argument that nineteenth-century expressions of individualism were defensive responses to the fear of social chaos radically revises the traditional narrative of American literary culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5733-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. ii-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. 1 Translating the Self: Between Discord and Individualism in American Literary History
    (pp. 1-27)

    Selfhood and freedom—in American literature and culture, these two terms have long been linked. The link has seemed so natural that even American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley, whose career was devoted to theorizing the interconnections between the self and society, was moved to declare in 1902, “No matter what a man does, he is not fully sane or human unless there is a spirit of freedom in him.”¹ Despite Cooley’s theoretical bent and his disciplinary allegiances to the field of sociology, he thus would define the core of human selfhood as that which not only evades predication by social...

  5. 2 Hawthorne’s Drama of the Self: Antebellum Psychology and Sociality
    (pp. 28-55)

    When, in his 1879 essay on Hawthorne, Henry James offered this assessment of Hawthorne’s generation, he looked back nostalgically to the antebellum United States and the political and societal simplicity—“the broad morning sunshine”—he associated with it. James believed, of course, that this simplicity exacted a price; earlier in the essay he had made his famous assertion that “the flower of art blooms only where the soil is deep, that it takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature” (320). A local, provincial, limited knowledge of the world and its intricacies may have posed, according to...

  6. 3 “But the Past Was Not Dead”: Aesthetics, History, and Community in Grandfather’s Chair and The Scarlet Letter
    (pp. 56-81)

    In “Young Goodman Brown,” “Egotism; or, The Bosom-Serpent,” and the other short works discussed in the preceding chapter, Hawthorne highlights the value of domestic stability and the dangers enveloping those who attempt explorations of themselves or their social environments without a firm domestic grounding. Hawthorne’s warning, repeated in so many of his writings, bears emphasis: although the individual consciousness may provide the site for psychological exploration by way of introspective processes, any individual claims to knowledge of the truth must stand the social test of reproducibility. If others cannot ultimately confirm individual insights, those insights are depicted by Hawthorne as...

  7. 4 The Altrurian Romances: Evolution and Immigration in Howells’s Utopia
    (pp. 82-102)

    Hawthorne’s gesture toward the future at the conclusion ofThe Scarlet Letterconforms to an American rhetoric of progress, though Hawthorne’s is a specifically moral progress, one implied by his vision of a relationship between men and women that someday would rest on a “surer ground of mutual happiness.”¹ His ideal of “mutual happiness” not only serves to describe domestic harmony; it also offers a figure of the proper social order, an order that balances individual emotional and intellectual needs against demands for community cohesion. Hawthorne thus imaginatively shifts the popular early-nineteenth-century belief in American progress, based on a historical...

  8. 5 The Ironic Construction of Selfhood: William James’s Principles of Psychology
    (pp. 103-121)

    In their fiction, Hawthorne and Howells dramatized problems of the relationship between the self and the community within nineteenth-century American thought. For Hawthorne, contemporary social issues and the advent of association psychology complicated but did not overturn his Common Sense understanding of the individual’s reliance on the community. The Common Sense analysis of the individual psyche, which constituted a part of every educated person’s instruction in moral philosophy, remained powerful even after the Civil War. In large part the Common Sense analysis held its ground because it articulated on a theoretical level the tension between the individual and society, which...

  9. 6 Selfhood, Pragmatism, and Literary Studies: Who Do We Think We Are? And What Do We Think We’re Doing?
    (pp. 122-132)

    Poststructuralist and revisionist theorists of literature and culture have effectively challenged the concept of the self as a unified locus of intention. If the self may no longer be considered the center of intentionality in an older, more positivistic sense, then we are left to inquire whether it still has value in discussions of literary theory. Is it possible—and useful—to talk about the self as something other than artifact and artifice, as other than an antiquarian dream to be disrupted while the discipline progresses toward new knowledge? The first issue at hand, if such a possibility exists, would...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 133-163)
  11. Index
    (pp. 164-168)