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

By Linda Costanzo Cahir | Go to book overview

2
THE DEVIL'S CHILDREN: THE ISOLATION OF SELF-RELIANCE

The romantic possibilities inherent in Ralph Waldo Emerson's emphasis on the attainability of transcendent truth, his rejection of the dominion of external authority, his insistence on the integrity of self-reliance, and his absolute faith in the right of spiritual autonomy appealed to Herman Melville and Edith Wharton. In keeping with Emerson's philosophy, Melville and Wharton created characters who are entirely self-governing. These characters begin and remain fully indifferent to any claims upon their conduct alleged by such external authorities as universal truths or social constructs. They believe that humankind's raison d'être is not provided, prepackaged, by a Supreme Being, that there is no ex cathedra ethic or Cosmic Dictum that supplies universal codes of right conduct and no divine justice that ultimately rewards benevolent efforts.

These characters act upon their convictions by presuming an absolute prerogative and power to judge and determine the lines of right conduct, and they base their determinations on whatever truths they hear spoken in their private hearts. Rather than withdrawing from society, as Melville's and Wharton's Mysterious Strangers do, they move around in and exploit their world. Recognizing that they are not bound by ecclesiastical, social, or cosmic truth, these self-reliant characters pursue their private truths in a manner that indifferently sweeps aside any rights or needs of others when those others' interests are in, conflict with their own. Pushing Emerson's doctrine of Self-Reliance to its most radical limits, these characters persist in a private quest; and in this pursuit, the rights of society and the responsibility of the individual to the common social good are matters of absolutely no concern to them. These self-reliant isolatoes are characters who take Emerson's doctrine of self-trust literally and at face value. Through their construction of these characters, Melville and Wharton scrutinize the actions and consequences of the extremes of self-involvement, and in their scrutiny is an implied criticism of Emerson's principles of Self-Reliance.

Wharton and Melville read Emerson's writings at length. Wharton makes repeated reference to Emerson in her letters, her nonfiction, and her verse. Melville

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Preface xiii
  • 1 - Melville and Wharton: The American Diptych 1
  • 2 - The Devil's Children: The Isolation of Self-Reliance 23
  • 3 - The Mysterious Stranger 57
  • 4 - The Sociable Isolato 87
  • 5 - The Sexual Transgressor 121
  • Bibliography 143
  • Index 151
  • About the Author *
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