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.
Subjects: Language & Literature
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