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American literary history of the nineteenth-century as a conflict between individualistic writers and a conformist society. In The 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 and The Scarlet Letter, Howells's utopian Altrurian romances, and James's The Principles of Psychology, it becomes obvious that characters who isolate themselves from the community do so at considerable psychological risk.
The Social Self links 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.
Joseph Alkana is associate professor of English at the University of Miami.
"Through intensely close readings of texts, Alkana traces the alternate concept of 'the social self.' In this time of militant groups resistant to conceptions of the self as interdependent from society, the issue is significant."—Choice
"Dense with fascinating and innovative variations on familiar themes and works. It is well worth the read."—JASAT
"Alkana freshly examines connections between selfhood and society as he negotiates a conceptual passageway between humanist definitions of selfhood . . . and poststructuralist claims of a 'new liberation' from the 'tyranny of the philosophical subject."—South Atlantic Review
"Alkana offers a provocative, alternative reading of the individualist movement in nineteenth-century literary and intellectual circles."—Year’s Work in English Studies
"Alkana's project does identify and explore the ongoing challenge of reconciling our critical and pedagogical methodologies and reminds us that the 'self,' in one form or another, remains central to this enterprise."—American Literature
The University Press of Kentucky
Place of Publication
William Dean Howells, William James, Psychology in literature, Psychology and literature, American literature
Literature in English, North America
Alkana, Joseph, "The Social Self: Hawthorne, Howells, William James, and Nineteenth-Century Psychology" (1996). Literature in English, North America. 42.