Solitude and Society in the Works of Herman Melville and Edith Wharton

Solitude and Society in the Works of Herman Melville and Edith Wharton

Solitude and Society in the Works of Herman Melville and Edith Wharton

Solitude and Society in the Works of Herman Melville and Edith Wharton

Synopsis

The interplay between solitude and society was a particularly persistent theme in nineteenth-century American literature. In confronting the antithetical states of isolation and community, these writers posed a number of questions concerning the relationships among God, humanity, and the universe. Herman Melville argued that while we are free to choose how we conduct our lives, whether in solitude or society, we cannot escape our essential condition of alienation. Writing some fifty years later, Edith Wharton reached the same conclusion. While scholars have largely disregarded Melville's influence on Wharton, this book demonstrates that she read a significant portion of his writings, that she reflected on his works, and that her consideration of his importance emerged during significant moments in her life. By examining a broad range of works written by both authors, this volume argues that Wharton was substantially influenced by Melville's concept of the alienated individual and by his views on solitude and society.

Excerpt

To an American, isolation is simultaneously a dilemma and a desire. This antithetical response runs through the history of the nation's literature. the earliest of American literary documents, William Bradford Of Plymouth Plantation, describes the Puritans' isolation in the New World as both vastly problematic and enormously necessary. Bradford characterizes the new land as a "hideous and desolate wilderness," a world challenging in its isolation, an isolation that was often onerous and life-threatening. Bradford acknowledges the physical horrors of the Plymouth condition as the expense of religious freedom. Disease, starvation, and "extreme wants" were tariffs the exiled Puritans paid in order "to have the right worship of God . . . without the mixture of men's inventions" (6). Bradford Of Plymouth Plantation repeatedly reminds us that the threats of the world mean little when compared to the loss of right worship and of self-expression. the history of Plymouth Plantation stands as a history of the American impulse.

Inherent in the American experience, and certainly a subject central in American letters, is the willingness to brave the wilderness, to accept solitude and loneliness, perhaps even to welcome them, as a means of searching for self. Through the solitary life the American casts off the mixture of men's inventions in order to confront his own inventions. This social solitude often evolves into a worthy social solidarity as the exile finds others who share his vision, who construct the same basic inventions that he does.

The interplay between seclusion and solidarity, a recurrent subject through all of American letters, becomes a particularly insistent theme in nineteenth-century American literature. the contradictory states of isolation and community, individualism and conformity were concerns that engaged nineteenth-century American writers who, though exploring the same essential problem, were notably varied in their approaches and their conclusions. Edgar Allan Poe explored the metaphysical significance of isolation and esteemed solitude as the state necessary for experiencing the rarefied domain of supernal beauty. Nathaniel Hawthorne viewed the interplay of society and solitude in moral terms and examined the . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.