- The Life and Undeath of Autonomy in American Literature by Geoff Hamilton
Geoff Hamilton’s The Life and Undeath of Autonomy in American Literature begins in ancient Greece and traces the imaginative “evolution” of autonomy through 220 years of American literary history. Anchored in Greek etymologies, Hamilton’s study revolves around how the expression of autonomy—that is, “self-law” but also “self-pasture”—takes place in terms of a struggle with both human law (nomos) and our perception of divine law (themis). Eschewing claims of influence and offering instead the language of “affinities” and development, Hamilton offers a diachronic reading of autonomy’s changing conditions across the major canonical writers, the primary sources in which he is well versed.
Chapter one, on the Greeks, covers Homer, Sophocles, and Socrates, among others. Chapter two introduces questions of autonomy into the American scene by looking mostly at Thomas Jefferson’s agricultural vision, with a brief glance at Charles Brockden Brown. Chapter three looks at the “mythic frontiersman” epitomized by Daniel Boone and James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo. Chapter four examines personal autonomy for Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman and its counterpointed questioning by Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville. Chapter five explores the detached, sometimes violent autonomy of the twentieth century, with a look at six works by Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer. Chapter six offers a more sustained discussion of a single novel, on autonomy in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, where the character of the judge subsumes both nomos and themis into his ultimate self-lawed mastery. Chapter seven proposes the “undeath” of mediated autonomy in three Don DeLillo novels, while the epilogue offers a brief glance at “hyperautonomy” in a twenty-first-century novel by Gary Shteyngart.
As might be expected in such a plan dealing with fourteen primary authors (and numerous others who are more briefly covered) across more than 2,500 years in only 138 pages, the result is a relatively quick thematic survey of autonomy in American literature. Since much of the book translates fairly conventional understandings of these authors (DeLillo’s characters have media-saturated identities; McCarthy’s judge is bent on violent mastery; Hemingway writes in the midst of “spiritual blight”) into the study’s preferred terms of autonomy, nomos, and themis, it would have been especially useful to indicate the new insights and critical advantages of this approach. The introduction suggests that autonomy is a richer conceptual approach than “atomic” individualism, but this suggestion is not demonstrated or argued throughout, and these readings, good as they often are, are unlikely to alter our sense of the longstanding (and long-studied) struggle between self and society in American literature. [End Page 375]
Indeed, recent work in American literary studies, prompted by feminist, postcolonial, and multicultural literary criticism, has generally reframed questions of American literature, identity, and selfhood through the new questions and insights. Hamilton is aware that his study “limits itself to the work (and, largely, the experience) of white males” and suggests that his study will “set a broad conceptual stage for exploring the equally if not more important narrative that runs alongside and against this one, namely, the search for autonomy in works by women and non-white authors.” But such work has been under way for four or five decades, beginning with the critique of how (white, male) American autonomy has traditionally been constructed through a contrast to women and non-white Others. While there is no need for Hamilton to repeat this work and its conclusions, his omission of it as a frame of reference produces some odd lacunae: it is difficult to think through Mailer’s envied “white negro,” or (as Toni Morrison has it) Jim’s necessary unfree presence for narratively shaping Huck’s autonomous freedom, or the slaveholding Jefferson’s concern that the “moral health of a people” be grounded by “their own soil and industry,” without recognizing the deployments of race and gender as the domain for the complex expressions of American autonomy. While insightful in its...