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E Pluribus Unum

Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Constitutional Paradox

W. C. Harris

Publication Year: 2005

“Out of many, one.” But how do the many become one without sacrificing difference or autonomy? This problem was critical to both identity formation and state formation in late 18th- and 19th-century America. The premise of this book is that American writers of the time came to view the resolution of this central philosophical problem as no longer the exclusive province of legislative or judicial documents but capable of being addressed by literary texts as well.

The project of E Pluribus Unum is twofold. Its first and underlying concern is the general philosophic problem of the one and the many as it came to be understood at the time. W. C. Harris supplies a detailed account of the genealogy of the concept, exploring both its applications and its paradoxes as a basis for state and identity formation.

Harris then considers the perilous integration of the one and the many as a motive in the major literary accomplishments of 19th-century U.S. writers. Drawing upon critical as well as historical resources and upon contexts as diverse as cosmology, epistemology, poetics, politics, and Bible translation, he discusses attempts by Poe, Whitman, Melville, and William James to resolve the problems of social construction caused by the paradox of e pluribus unum by writing literary and philosophical texts that supplement the nation’s political founding documents.

Poe (Eureka), Whitman (Leaves of Grass), Melville (Billy Budd), and William James (The Varieties of Religious Experience) provide their own distinct, sometimes contradictory resolutions to the conflicting demands of diversity and unity, equality and hierarchy. Each of these texts understands literary and philosophical writing as having the potential to transform-conceptually or actually-the construction of social order.

This work will be of great interest to literary and constitutional scholars.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

I am very grateful to Allen Grossman, who first helped me envision this project and suggested a beginning.His uncompromising support, demands for precision, and generous investment of time and advice made this book possible, both in its earlier and present forms. I also wish to thank Larzer Ziff for reading these pages with characteristic...


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pp. xi

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pp. 1-36

One does not have to be a classicist to recognize the Latin phrase e pluribus unum or to know what it means. Anyone who has handled American money often enough knows the inscription appears on the back of the quarter and on the crowded reverse of the one-dollar bill.I remember,as a child,staring at these strange,impres-...

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1. “Brotherhood among the Atoms” Edgar Allan Poe and the Poetics of Constitution

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pp. 37-70

“I have no desire to live since I have done ‘Eureka.’ I could accomplish nothing more” (Letters 2: 452).Poe wrote these words to his mother-in-law,Maria Clemm,in July of 1849 — only three months prior to his death. Nearly a year after the publication of Eureka: A Prose-Poem (1848), Poe still considered it his last word, that toward...

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2. “A Religion Which Is No Religion” Walt Whitman and the Writing of a New American Bible

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pp. 71-109

Leaves of Grass represents a lifelong endeavor. Between 1855 and 1892 Whitman produced nine editions of Leaves, not simply expanding it by incorporating new poems but extensively revising and rearranging the predecessor text.2 Considering the differences between editions in format, typography, and content, and the changes...

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3. “But Aren’t It All a Sham?” Herman Melville and the Critique of Unity

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pp. 111-151

As literary documents that address the constitutional problematic of unity, Eureka and Leaves of Grass deliver one distinct response: preserve unity at cost to plurality.1 By contrast, texts like Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, andThe Varieties of Religious Experience constitute what I am characterizing as a second distinct, nearly antithetical...

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4. “Necessarily Short of Sight” William James and the Dilemma of Variety

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pp. 153-193

The James texts I will be looking at in this chapter are less often discussed, being generally considered peripheral to the Jamesian canon: the pair of early lectures on epistemology, entitled “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” and “What Makes a Life Significant” (1892; pub. 1899), and two of the several newspaper editorials...

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pp. 195-208

The deep classicism of early American political culture is evident in the pseudonym, “Publius,” under which the Federalist Papers appeared in New York newpapers from the fall of 1787 through the spring of 1788.Even if the drafters of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution (Thomas...


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pp. 209-288

Works Cited

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pp. 289-307


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pp. 309-314

E-ISBN-13: 9781587295935

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2005