Robert A. Ferguson investigates the nature of 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. The theme is a vital one because a greater percentage of people live alone today than at any other time in U.S. history.
The many isolated characters in American fiction, Ferguson says, appeal to us through inward claims of identity when pitted against the social priorities of a consensual culture. They indicate how we might talk to ourselves when the same pressures come our way. In fiction, more visibly than in life, defining moments turn on the clarity of an inner conversation.
Alone in America tests the inner conversations that work and sometimes fail. It examines the typical elements and moments that force us toward a solitary state—failure, betrayal, change, defeat, breakdown, fear, difference, age, and loss—in their ascending power over us. It underlines the evolving answers that famous figures in literature have given in response. Figures like Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Toni Morrison’s Sethe and Paul D., or Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March and Marilynne Robinson’s John Ames, carve out their own possibilities against ruthless situations that hold them in place. Instead of trusting to often superficial social remedies, or taking thin sustenance from the philosophy of self-reliance, Ferguson says we can learn from our fiction how to live alone.
Ferguson offers a sweeping panoramic account of his chosen fictions. Alone in America is well worth the price of admission.
Alone in America captures the tension between individualist ideal and the experience of loneliness that the opening presents so powerfully. Reading Ferguson's book sets up a contagious way of thinking afresh about American literature and culture, so that each reader will probably think of additional works in which this tension operates.
Illuminating...Ferguson argues persuasively that loneliness has been a dominant theme in American literature virtually since Americans began writing. Concentrating on what he (by way of Emerson) refers to as 'the lords of life' (failure, betrayal, change, defeat, breakdown, fear, difference, age, and loss), he offers close readings of works from the early 19th century through the late 20th century, showing how these recurring issues, reflecting each era's zeitgeist, alienate characters from society and themselves. Rip Van Winkle awakens from his alcohol-induced slumber to find himself 20 years out of time. The heroines of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God suffer estrangement within their poorly made marriages. Ferguson is particular edifying in his chapter on immigrant novels, which acutely show the loss of home that he finds at the center of all manifestations of loneliness in American literature. Age, gender, race, and illness are presented as agents of isolation in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Mark Twain, Saul Bellow, Don DeLillo, and others. Ferguson invites the reader to look at classic fiction in a new light, and ponder the irony of so much loneliness in the literature of a country that champions self-reliance and the self-made man."
Ferguson presents a scholarly study of how aloneness has been treated in American fiction over several centuries. He points out that being alone is experienced in different ways, drawing distinctions between feelings of loneliness, vulnerability, and solitude.
- 296 pages
- 5 x 7-1/2 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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