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

Overview

The interplay between solitude and society was a particularly persistent theme in nineteenth-century American literature, though writers approached this theme in different ways. Poe explored the metaphysical significance of isolation and held solitude in high esteem; Hawthorne viewed the theme in moral terms and examined the obligation of each individual to the larger community; and Emerson maintained that the contradictory states of self-reliance and solidarity are fundamental to human happiness. Herman Melville...

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Overview

The interplay between solitude and society was a particularly persistent theme in nineteenth-century American literature, though writers approached this theme in different ways. Poe explored the metaphysical significance of isolation and held solitude in high esteem; Hawthorne viewed the theme in moral terms and examined the obligation of each individual to the larger community; and Emerson maintained that the contradictory states of self-reliance and solidarity are fundamental to human happiness. Herman Melville emerged with an ontological response to this issue. Questioning the nature of being, he argued that humans are essentially isolated creatures. While he grants that we are free to choose how we conduct our lives, whether in solitude or in society, we cannot escape the essential condition of our alienation. Thus in Moby-Dick, he coins the term Isolato to signify the inherent separateness of all individuals. Writing some fifty years later, Edith Wharton reached the same conclusion. This book argues that Wharton's views on solitude and society were strongly parallel to those of Melville.

Scholars have generally held that Wharton was primarily influenced by the great English, French, and Russian writers of the nineteenth century; and that with the exception of Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry James, she neglected the influence of American literature almost entirely. This study demonstrates that Wharton read a significant portion of Melville's writings, that she reflected on the nature and achievement of his works, and that her consideration of his importance emerged during very significant moments in her life, when she was forced to grapple with her own place as an individual in relation to a larger community. Though Melville and Wharton initially seem disparate, this book shows that they had much in common. By studying the two authors side by side, this volume reveals that they shared a similar way of seeing the world, particularly with respect to their considerations of solitude and society. Through their solitary characters, Melville and Wharton question the relationship of self and society and thus engage a universal problem of special interest to the nineteenth century.

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Editorial Reviews

Booknews
First explains Melville's (1819-91) ideas that though humans can choose society, they are naturally solitary and can never escape that heritage. Then argues that Wharton (1862-1937) was well read in Melville, shared his views on the matter, and represents a strong voice continuing and articulating that American literary tradition. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

LINDA COSTANZO CAHIR is Associate Professor of English at Centenary College.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Preface
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
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