Alone in America: The Stories that Matter

Alone in America: The Stories that Matter

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by Robert A. Ferguson

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this illuminating study, Columbia University professor 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. (Jan.)
Lawrence Buell
Ferguson offers a sweeping panoramic account of his chosen fictions. Alone in America is well worth the price of admission.
Werner Sollors
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.
Library Journal
Ferguson (law, literature, and criticism, Columbia Univ.) 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. Within his examination, he finds that aloneness as a difficult condition has often been tied to the home. He places this form of aloneness under the umbrella of "disturbed domesticity." He focuses more on this challenging experience of being alone than on the potentially positive state of solitude. He draws from a diverse pool of male, female, and African American writers and examines some well-known texts such as Toni Morrison's Beloved, Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, but he equally investigates lesser-known works, including Edith Wharton's The Fruit of the Tree and Henry Roth's Call It Sleep. He also discusses immigrant literature and works about old age. Perhaps it is this diversity that makes one wonder why Asian American and Hispanic American authors are absent. VERDICT Ferguson's work will appeal to an academic audience, especially in American studies.—Stacy Russo, Santa Ana Coll. Lib., CA

Product Details

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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter Three: Louisa May Alcott Meets Mark Twain Over the Young face of Change

Four lessons from Beth’s death reveal Jo to be a serious thinker in a chapter aptly named “All Alone.” The first lesson comes, as it often does, from Alcott’s title to the chapter. Against fatality we are alone, and must call upon inner strength to bear it, as Beth manages to do arranging the good death in her own way. Second, and related to the first lesson, Jo recognizes that death breaks even the closest unit. The family has been the best thing for Jo the child; now, because the March family is less, it no longer encompasses. “Everyone seems going away from me,” Jo reflects to herself, “and now I am all alone.” The home remains, but the domestic scene at the center of the novel is gone. Although that scene gave Jo the comfort zone for thought that she needed, she now learns to think harder without it.

Solitude, the state required for reflection, provides the third lesson. It encourages Jo to be herself in the stories she wants to tell. Until this point she has churned out pulp fiction for the magazines. Now, writing from “The heart” and “with no thought of fame or money,” she has, in her father’s words, “found your style at last.” But as the fourth lesson in “All Alone” conveys, Father March is again only half right. Jo, like Alcott, writes from the head as well as the heart. She has developed an adult perspective with her own view of the world. Instead of the family defining her, it has become her subject.

Jo turns to her father, a rare occurrence, for the fourth lesson of “All Alone,” and she discovers that her parent, even as a minister, has no more of an answer than she over the loss of Beth. They converse in the study named “the church of one member,” a significant break from Alcott’s gestures of familial cohesion. To resolve “the want of faith that made life look so dark” requires reflection. Jo learns that life must be managed through careful thought. This is the moment she grows up.

Alcott signals as much by seizing upon the scene: “the time had come when they could talk together not only as father and daughter, but as man and woman, able and glad to serve each other with mutual sympathy as well as mutual love.” Death, the equalizer, brings Jo to her father’s intellectual plane. In effect, the scene gives more: her growth against her father’s static state carries her beyond him.

The proof of Jo’s new ascendancy comes in the very next chapter, “Surprises,” with Laurie’s return as the husband of Amy. Laurie rushes in and expects to “go back to the happy old times,” but Jo, alone among her peers, has dealt with death directly and intimately. “We never can be boy and girl again,” she instantly reproves him, “the happy old times can’t come back.” We are man and woman now,” she adds, “with sober work to do, for play-time is over, and we must give up frolicking.”

It is important to recognize what solitude has accomplished even though Jo’s state of being alone is of short duration. She has learned what she can be in her own eyes. She has decided to put away childish things, and is ready to assert herself in the world, which opens new vistas though not without an undercurrent of loss. Jo on the threshold of adulthood speaks to us at this point more worthy of a reader’s full respect, but she also somehow becomes of less interest in a book on childhood

Meet the Author

Robert A. Ferguson is George Edward Woodberry Professor in Law, Literature, and Criticism at Columbia University.

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Alone in America: The Stories that Matter 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This wasn't an easy book to get through at first because I couldn't understand why the author used certain words and sentences. I hung in there because the story resonated honestly and truly with me. As a kid in the new york public school and library system i have seen of most of the titles researched by the author who deserves credit for bringing it all together in this context. His handing of the material has the power to foster a greater appreciation of reading in the reader and an interest in life.