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The Life and Undeath of Autonomy in American Literature

Geoff Hamilton

Publication Year: 2013

In The Life and Undeath of Autonomy in American Literature, Geoff Hamilton charts the evolution of the fundamental concept of autonomy in the American imaginary across the span of the nation’s literary history. Whereas America’s ideological roots are typically examined in relation to Enlightenment Europe, this book traces the American literary representation of autonomy back to its pastoral, political, and ultimately religious origins in ancient Greek thought. Tracking autonomy’s evolution in America from the Declaration of Independence to contemporary works, Hamilton considers affinities between American and Greek literary characters—Natty Bumppo and Odysseus, Emerson’s "poet" and Socrates, Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden and Callicles—and reveals both what American literary history has in common with that of ancient Greece and what is distinctively its own.

The author argues for the link with antiquity not only to understand better the boundaries between self and society but also to show profound transitions in the understanding of autonomy from a nourishing liberty of fulfillment, through an aggressive agency destructive to both human and natural worlds, to a sterile isolation and detachment. The result is an insightful analysis of the history of individualism, the evolution of frontier mythology and American Romanticism, and the contemporary representation of social alienation and violent criminality.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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pp. 1-8


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xiv

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pp. 1-16

From the founding of America to the contemporary moment, conceptions of autonomy have been central to the nation’s political and imaginative life. Given that centrality, and the fact that both the “self” (auto) in auto-nomy, and the social “order”...

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1. The Birth and Growth of Autonomy in Ancient Greece

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pp. 17-26

In what follows I offer a brief, heuristic outline—from Homer to Epicurus—of the emergence of personal autonomy in ancient Greek literature, tracing some of the intriguing etymological associations of auto-nomia (“self-law,” “self-pasture”) and the various shades of its root gesture...

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2. Eunomia’s Rebirth in America

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pp. 27-41

Thomas Jefferson, mythopoeic draftsman of the American arcadia, was keenly aware that the nation’s “new beginning” was linked to a tradition of political liberty dating back to the ancients. In a letter to Henry Lee in 1825, he affirmed both the distinctness and the historical indebtedness of the Declaration he had penned nearly a half century earlier: “Neither...

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3. The Mythic Frontiersman

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pp. 42-53

In his Letters from an American Farmer (1783), J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur celebrated American autonomy, and in particular the virtuous character of agrarian life, in terms largely parallel to Jefferson’s. Crèvecoeur also warned, however, of the dangers of venturing too far from civilization, and of giving up the ennobling discipline of agriculture...

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4. The Deified Self

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pp. 54-75

Emerson and Thoreau, exceeding the range of Jefferson’s skeptical inquiry and intensifying the mythic frontiersman’s privileging of solitude within Nature, raise personal autonomy to a kind of ecstatic absoluteness. Turning to the natural world as a tutor for the self, they discover the potential for enormous self-augmentation through disciplined introspection...

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5. Isolates and Outlaws

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pp. 76-97

The work of Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s, represented in this chapter by several short stories as well as the novels The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), assumes the dissolution of American eunomia, and the necessity of seeking personal autonomy not as part of some ultimately communal enterprise—even one as conjectural as...

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6. Self-Pasture’s Sublime (and Bloody) Meridian

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pp. 98-111

In Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: Or The Evening Redness in the West (1985), we meet in the formidable and frightening Judge Holden the satanic zenith of American autonomy—a figure wandering the desert spaces of the Southwest in the mid-nineteenth century who is, ultimately, representative of autonomy’s late-twentieth-century urban...

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7. Hyperautonomy

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pp. 112-132

Don DeLillo’s work exemplifies the lingering, postmeridial undeath of personal autonomy. In it we find anatomized the concept I call hyperautonomy, an augmentation of the self so great, an opening of possibilities so absolute, that what begins in the nation’s (literary and cultural) history as a liberty that...

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Epilogue: Autonomy’s Posthuman Dénouement

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pp. 133-138

American autonomy has always privileged newness, a reinvention and augmentation of possibilities for the self and the nation in defiance of the tyranny of the old. Jefferson, writing to James Madison from Paris in the fall of 1789, has this to say about the priority of the living over the dead: ...


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pp. 139-140

Works Cited

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pp. 141-148


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pp. 149-152

E-ISBN-13: 9780813935300
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813935287

Page Count: 168
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 868223125
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Life and Undeath of Autonomy in American Literature

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- History and criticism.
  • Self in literature.
  • Autonomy in literature.
  • Persona (Literature).
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