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The Life and Undeath of Autonomy in American Literature

The Life and Undeath of Autonomy in American Literature

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 168
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    The Life and Undeath of Autonomy in American Literature
    Book Description:

    InThe Life and Undeath of Autonomy in American Literature,Geoff Hamilton charts the evolution of the fundamental concept of autonomy in the American imaginary across the span of the nation's literary history. Whereas America's ideological roots are typically examined in relation to Enlightenment Europe, this book traces the American literary representation of autonomy back to its pastoral, political, and ultimately religious origins in ancient Greek thought. Tracking autonomy's evolution in America from the Declaration of Independence to contemporary works, Hamilton considers affinities between American and Greek literary characters-Natty Bumppo and Odysseus, Emerson's "poet" and Socrates, Cormac McCarthy's Judge Holden and Callicles-and reveals both what American literary history has in common with that of ancient Greece and what is distinctively its own.

    The author argues for the link with antiquity not only to understand better the boundaries between self and society but also to show profound transitions in the understanding of autonomy from a nourishing liberty of fulfillment, through an aggressive agency destructive to both human and natural worlds, to a sterile isolation and detachment. The result is an insightful analysis of the history of individualism, the evolution of frontier mythology and American Romanticism, and the contemporary representation of social alienation and violent criminality.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3530-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    From the founding of America to the contemporary moment, conceptions of autonomy have been central to the nation’s political and imaginative life. Given that centrality, and the fact that both the “self” (auto) in auto-nomy, and the social “order” (nomos) in which it is expressed, have changed dramatically over the course of American history, it is remarkable that critical discussions of the concept so often treat it statically and ahistorically, ignoring its complex evolution, which began long before there ever was an America, or even a New World.

    The Life and Undeath of Autonomycharts this evolution. Though its structural...

  5. 1 The Birth and Growth of Autonomy in Ancient Greece
    (pp. 17-26)

    In what follows I offer a brief, heuristic outline—from Homer to Epicurus—of the emergence of personal autonomy in ancient Greek literature, tracing some of the intriguing etymological associations ofauto-nomia(“self-law,” “self-pasture”) and the various shades of its root gesturenemo(“deal out, dispense, order, or assign,” “pasture or tend flocks,” “feed upon or graze,” “have to oneself or possess,” “inhabit,” “consume [in a fire],” “spread [like an ulcer]”) with the land itself, as well as the evolving idea of law as sanctioned by human or divine powers external to any person. My intent is to set out...

  6. 2 Eunomia’s Rebirth in America
    (pp. 27-41)

    Thomas Jefferson, mythopoeic draftsman of the American arcadia, was keenly aware that the nation’s “new beginning” was linked to a tradition of political liberty dating back to the ancients. In a letter to Henry Lee in 1825, he affirmed both the distinctness and the historical indebtedness of the Declaration he had penned nearly a half century earlier: “Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the...

  7. 3 The Mythic Frontiersman
    (pp. 42-53)

    In hisLetters from an American Farmer(1783), J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur celebrated American autonomy, and in particular the virtuous character of agrarian life, in terms largely parallel to Jefferson’s. Crèvecoeur also warned, however, of the dangers of venturing too far from civilization, and of giving up the ennobling discipline of agriculture in favor of hunting. So-called “back settlers,” aimless and dangerous frontiersmen, absorbed the “surrounding hostility” of the uncultivated wilderness and became “ferocious, gloomy, and unsocial,” every aspect of their lives notable for its “lawless profligacy” (51). These unmannered and unproductive folk exist in something like the...

  8. 4 The Deified Self
    (pp. 54-75)

    Emerson and Thoreau, exceeding the range of Jefferson’s skeptical inquiry and intensifying the mythic frontiersman’s privileging of solitude within Nature, raise personal autonomy to a kind of ecstatic absoluteness. Turning to the natural world as a tutor for the self, they discover the potential for enormous self-augmentation through disciplined introspection. In contrast, the parochial human conventions of the postrevolutionary Americannomosare deemed constrictive of the self, and often—and oftenintrinsically—opposed to the themistic order infusing Nature.

    Though Emerson and Thoreau each imagine the formation of a new, vitalized nomistic order, they conceive of it as the eventual...

  9. 5 Isolates and Outlaws
    (pp. 76-97)

    The work of Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s, represented in this chapter by several short stories as well as the novelsThe Sun Also Rises(1926) andA Farewell to Arms(1929), assumes the dissolution of Americaneunomia, and the necessity of seeking personal autonomy not as part of some ultimately communal enterprise—even one as conjectural as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman had posited—but in cool detachment from the nomistic world. Where Poe and Melville charted, as it were, the early, explosive, and still rather speculative repercussions of eunomic dissolution, Hemingway anatomizes the givens of its posttraumatic wreckage. The...

  10. 6 Self-Pasture’s Sublime (and Bloody) Meridian
    (pp. 98-111)

    In Cormac McCarthy’sBlood Meridian: Or The Evening Redness in the West(1985), we meet in the formidable and frightening Judge Holden the satanic zenith of American autonomy—a figure wandering the desert spaces of the Southwest in the mid-nineteenth century who is, ultimately, representative of autonomy’s late-twentieth-century urban pathologies. The Judge’s pronouncements, at times suggestive of grandiose bluster but always profoundly resonant, articulate the bloody climax of a broader Western movement toward radical autonomy culminating in the American sublime and its valorization of the self-lawed person. The Judge’s bellicose aim—to identify himself with the world, asserting dominion over...

  11. 7 Hyperautonomy
    (pp. 112-132)

    Don DeLillo’s work exemplifies the lingering, postmeridial undeath of personal autonomy. In it we find anatomized the concept I callhyperautonomy, an augmentation of the self so great, an opening of possibilities so absolute, that what begins in the nation’s (literary and cultural) history as a liberty thatfulfillsthe self, ends in a paradoxical and pathologicalemptying—first of any meaningful and sustainable relationship between individual and community, and finally of any sense of individuality itself.

    The pastoral world Jefferson describes, through which the divine and its laws can be known, disappears here with the collapse of Nature into...

  12. Epilogue: Autonomy’s Posthuman Dénouement
    (pp. 133-138)

    American autonomy has always privilegednewness, a reinvention and augmentation of possibilities for the self and the nation in defiance of the tyranny of the old. Jefferson, writing to James Madison from Paris in the fall of 1789, has this to say about the priority of the living over the dead:

    The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 139-140)
  14. Works Cited
    (pp. 141-148)
  15. Index
    (pp. 149-152)