Robert A. Ferguson: Alone in America, the Stories that Matter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.
Alone in America addresses the impact of aloneness in U.S. culture through representative works of American fiction. The book is not an exploration in sociology but an attempt to identify what author Ferguson calls "the moments when the space between loneliness and solitude disappears," and finds these moments best explored in works contrived for the purpose.
Ferguson identifies the forces confronted by the characters of American fiction as those Emerson might have labeled "the lords of life": failure, betrayal, change, defeat, breakdown, fear, difference, age, and loss. These experiential factors emphatically define the divide between involuntary loneliness and voluntary solitude -- that tenuous state of "aloneness."
In a provocative prologue, Ferguson describes Toqueville as the first observer to describe American individualism as "social fragmentation, distrust, suspicion, a leveling presentism." Toqueville saw Americans as permanently separated from themselves, their roots, origins, purpose, and identity. In his famous essay "Self-Reliance," Emerson turned this phenomenon into ideological boast:
Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone, to refuse the good models, even those most sacred to the imagination of men. ... Absolve you of yourself. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
To fellow erudites and transcendentalists, this advice represents a core American individualism, but in fact proposed the negative effect of justifying American fragmentation, ego, and alienation already inherit in the nation's character. Emerson's imagined individual Self, with its innate sense of cultural integrity, was eventually refuted by pragmatism, sociology, and psychology, but was tellingly ignorant of the floundering of American individualism caused by the historical thrust of frontier, race, genocide, already present in Emerson's day -- and by the vicissitudes of the "lords of life."
The first social casualty of American individualism and social vice was domesticity, the loss of home, identity, and continuity. Social vice dissolved the confident self of Emerson. Ferguson sets out to show how fiction highlights the options of distressed characters in this social context. Nearly all fiction represents solitary heroes, but American fiction shows unsuccessful ones consistent with American society and cultural values.
Ferguson helpfully returns to the subject of the prologue with a midpoint comment (between chapters 5 and 6) on Emerson's evolved ideas in the essay "Experience." He caps this useful train of thought with a concluding reflection (chapter 10) on Whitman's similar turn. Meanwhile, nine chapters survey representative American fiction and characters embedded in aloneness. (What follows are the chapter topics, not the chapter titles):
- Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle (aging)
- Nathaniel Hawthorne: My Kinsman, Major Molineux (betrayal)
- Louisa May Alcott: Little Women & Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn (youth)
- Henry James: The Portrait of a Lady & Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God (women)
- Edith Wharton: The Fruit of the Tree (pain)
- Henry Roth: Call It Sleep (immigration)
- William Faulkner: Absalom! Absalom! & Toni Morrison: Beloved (race)
- Saul Bellow: Mr. Sammler's Planet (aging)
- Don Delillo: Falling Man & Marilynne Robinson: Gilead (age; relationships)
- Walt Whitman (aging)
1. In Irving, Rip Van Winkle is a homeless solitary and scorned alcoholic rescued by his family. Written in 1819, Ferguson notes that this epoch (1800-1830) had the highest rate of alcoholism in American history. The supposedly amusing tale is a story as much of American awakening from colonial capacity to bewildered republic beset by intractable problems. But who will take pity on a whole nation as a sot?
2. The decline in social consensus by 1832 is dramatized by Hawthorne's story of betrayal. A boy is betrayed by his family, walks to a city where his uncle will take him in, but upon arrival finds his hapless uncle being led, tarred and feathered, down a street by a jeering mob. Betrayal is endemic because, as Ferguson puts it, "people easily tolerate a level of injustice when it is imposed on others."
3. Alcott and Twain present post-Civil War stories of youth contrasted as the insular developing child (Alcott) and the homeless one living on his wits, hopes, and fears (Twain). But both novelists, despite their apparent extremes, perceive society as moral depravity. Their protagonists must follow a chaotic moral journey towards adulthood, characterized by loss and aloneness.
4. The female protagonists in James and Hurston are "defeated by people close to them, and must grow beyond the problem while still defined through it by others." As women, they are vulnerable to manipulation and circumscribed by their culture, upheld by unscrupulous men. Their aloneness is constructed by society a priori.
5. The 1907 Fruit of the Tree by Wharton is an extension of the James and Hurston focus on a female protagonist, here dwelling in the world of illness and pain, the isolation of the caregiving role, and "domesticity undone." The protagonist is "defined by her vulnerability in the solitude and supportive role that an intense patient relationship requires." Her strength is to act correctly, courageously, without reference to consequences, though for women that is impossible.
Midpoint. Under the rubric of "the lords of life revisited," Ferguson revisits the mature Emerson in the latter's essay "Experience." Emerson has lived through the deaths of his wife, a close brother, and his beloved son. His exuberance and faith in self-reliance is exhausted. "Life itself is a bubble and a skepticism, and a sleep within a sleep," he writes. It is "a flitting state, a tent for a night." Contrast this resignation with the grand optimism of his "transparent eyeball" theme in "Self-Reliance," where the whole world awaits the individualist's conquest.
6. The immigrant novel with its broader social context accentuates the alienation that undermines the first generation's hope in America. A fear of the unknown and the loss of the familiar characterize the immigrant. In Henry Roth's book, a child is speechless in his developing years, characterizing the depth of unarticulated fears in his adult brethren. Little David walks the streets in panic and calculates reasons not to pursue interests, not to reveal himself. Only in sleep is there found the quieting of the trauma and solitude the protagonist suffers.
7. Race has undermined American society not only through race hatred but by the indissoluable historical reality of slavery and power. In Faulkner, the southern plantation is the lurid progenitor of a self-destructive world-view. Faulkner's protagonist embodies "that solitude of contempt and distrust which success brings to him who gained it because he was strong instead of merely lucky." But that solitude is the nemesis that, through race, destroys him.
Morrison revisits the plantation South from a black perspective, depicting how slavery forever destroys families and relationships, all made meaningfulness in the struggling protagonists. What more profound aloneness in American history fictionalized than this profound loss of domesticity?
8. Saul Bellow's aging protagonist is a prototype of the late 20th-century U.S., an immigrant never absorbed by the prevalent culture, suffering threats at once physical, social, economic, and medical. He clings to a conventional wisdom despite the vicissitudes that tend to isolate him. His guiding principle in aging, as he sees death all around him, is to maintain his character.
9. Delillos' characters are consummate modern urbanites, fragmented in relationships, coping with solitude. The image of a man jumping from one of the burning towers on September 11, 2001, propels the novel's characters to reflect on the image of falling, descending, declining, dying, that seems embedded in their own lives and actions.
In Robinson's Gilead, the dying man suffers the regrets of a younger wife and unreconciled sons. The novel's circumscribed domestic, rural setting and characters nevertheless strike a note about the universality of aloneness in the American landscape, even when the surface projects love and contentment.
10. In his final chapter, Ferguson reviews Whitman. Analogous to Emerson, Whitman's early work "Song to Myself" extols youth, physicality, ego. But witnessing horrors in war beyond his own sense of fear and discretion, then entering age, illness, and isolation, Whitman's Specimen Days addresses the question of the past and of oblivion, his repute as a writer, his critics, and his own tortured formula of reconciliation to life. The "specimens" are the parts of the past, his writings, and each must be let go, with the last thought that they at least made some connection to humanity. As Ferguson puts it, "The loneliness and fear of the writer turn into the solitude that he shares with all future readers who stop to appreciate the effort he has given."
Ferguson has searched for new extensions of involuntary and voluntary solitude carefully elicited from American fiction and from the lives of the characters presented. Alone in America is a thoughtful consideration and an original and insightful review of a subtle and fruitful field of interest.¶