AMERICAN INDIVIDUALISM

ACS A675/ENG A675

SUMMER 1998


"Individualism supplied the nation with a rationalization of its characteristic attitudes, behavior patterns and aspirations, It endowed the past, the present and the future with the perspective of unity and progress. It explained the peculiar social and polticial organization of the nation--unity in spite of heterogeniety~~and it pointed toward aan ideal social organization in harmony with American experience. Above all, individualism expressed sathe universalism and idealism most characteristic of the national consciousness. This concept evolved in contradistinction to socialism, the universal and messianic character of which it shared."

Yehoshua Arieli, Individualism and Nationalism in American ldeoIogy (1964)

"Individualism, the love of enterprise, and the pride in personal freedom have been deemed by Americans not only their choicest, but [their] peculiar and exclusive possession."

James Bryce, The American Commonwealth (1888)


Course Description: Individualism is perhaps the pnmary concept that, transcending such categories as race, gender, class, age and region, unites Americans across time and space to give coherence to the national experience. From the earliest beginnings of the republic to the post-modernist present, the rights of the individual citizen and his or her place in the scheme of things has been of primary importance to American philosophers, artists, political theorists, theologians and others concerned with articulating national values and principles. Communitarian ideas rise from time to time to challenge individualism, but none have yet been successful in seriously weakening its hold on American culture. Incorporated into American "common-sense thinking," the philosophy of individualism becomes in the popular mind the very essence of what being an American means. In this course we will examine with a critical eye the philosophical basis and social consequences of the primacy of the individual in American intellectual, legal, and political traditions.

As described by A. W. B. Lewis, the quintessential American is "an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the ususal inheritance of family and race; an individual standing alone and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources (The American Adam). While in the world of actual existence Americans may be advantaged or handicapped by their ancestry, the world of national myth projects an idealized socio-cultural environment in which the past is irrevelant. Understandinng the character of American national experience requires appreciation of the extent to which concepts of the individual and the philosophy of individualism have been the core of social, economic, and cultural conventions.

While the unique individual has been at the center of American thought, the way the individual is conceived has changed radically over the years. We will study the philosophical/literary/political and economic traditions of individualism, especially as

it finds expression in American culture as it evolves over the years. Beginning with the writings of John Locke, which are an essential background to understanding the importance of the individual in our political traditions, we will consider individualism in the context of such movements as Romanticism, Social Darwinism, Progressivi5~, Existentialsim, and Postmodernism as each redefines the concept of the individual. Representative works of literature and popular culture will be read and discussed to show how, through imagintive works, individualism achieves hegemoni~ power in American culture.

Readings: The following topics and readings are representative of the approach we will take to this subject. Under each heading, the primary text cited is the required reading for that unit; the names following are authors of secondary Sources generally relevant to the subject, though not necessarily commentaries on them. These works are included in the bibliography.

I.The Roots of American Individualism

John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government*

II.The Pursuit of Happiness: Possessive Individualism and the Evolution of the American Dream.

Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography

Ill.Romantic Individualism: Currents and Countercurrents

Selections from Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson

IV.The Darwinian Paradigm: Society as Jungle

Frank Norris, MacTeague

F.Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

V.Man and Superman: Proletarian America and the New Individualism

Jack Conroy, The Disinherited

Ayn Ryn, The Fountainhead

VI.Individualism and Conformity

Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt

Arthur Miller, The Crucible

VII.The Western as America

Shane (the film)

VII.Individualism, Alienation, and Postmodern America

Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler's Planet *

VIII.The New Romaticism

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

*Indicates works not on reading list for Summer 1998.

Course Requirements:

I.Participation. All seminar participants are expected to have completed assigned readings on the indicated date and to be prepared to engage in discussion flowing from the readings. Regular atttendance is required.

II. Review of Secondary Literature. In order to experience the range of opinion on the relationship between American culture, American values, individualism and community, seminar participants will be assigned to review a significant work of scholarship which explores some of these themes. These works range from those directly concerned with the concept of individualism to others which implicitly or explicitly incorporate their discussion of individual and community within a broader context. Representing such fields as history, literature, sociology, political science, and philsophy, these works collectively illustrate the extent to which the concept of individualism is near the core of discourse on American culture and society. Only in rare cases does a specific secondary work comment directly on the reading assignment for the topic with which it conincides; more often a thematic connection relates the primary and secondary texts; in some cases the connection is very tenuous. In all cases, the secondary sources are intrinsically valuable for their contribution to an understanding of individualism.

Each seminar participant will offer an oral review (approximately 15 minutes) of an assigned text from the "Bibliography of Secondary Sources" in which you discuss the relevance of the work to the themes of the course. No formal paper is required for this exercise.

For part of you grade, you will turn in (1) a sentence outline of your presentation following the form illustrated in Section 1.7.3 of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Reasearch Paoers, 3rd Edition (1988) and (2) a selection of about 5 short quotations (which you may use in your presentation) that capture the stylistic flavor and intellectual quality of the work you are considering. Expectations are for more than a mere summary of the work. A review should contextualize and evaluate as well as summarize. For examples of the kind of scholarly review appropriate for this exercise, consult back issues of American Quarterly or American Historical Review.

NOTE: In many cases, the assignments under this rubric will not reflect the academic background a particular individual brings to the course. It is my assumption that, as scholars, you should be able to read intelligently and perceptively in order to analyze and comment upon a text outside your field of study, and to understand how the work relates to the topic under consideration. Consulting published reviews of the work will help you grasp its subtlties and contextualize it within a scholarly tradition; comparing it to related works in a field you are more familiar with will help you personalize your reaction. It is just as necessary to research a secondary work you are to present as a primary one. Remember, not only are you speaking as a non-specialist, you are speaking to non-specialists. The essential question to address is what does this particular work contribute to an on-going debate about the relationship between the individual and the community in American culture.

Ill. Term Papers. Each seminar participant is required to write a term paper of about 10 to 15 pages. The final form in which your paper is submitted should conform in matters to style, footnotes, and bibiliography to the standards set out in The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. Only word-processed or typewritten manuscripts are acceptable. All papers are expected to evidence a serious research effort and to be presented as a "professional" scholarly manuscript.

Your topic may be based upon a single work, the works of a single writer--generally excluding works covered in class as the primary topic--or a broader topic such as the ones suggested in bold type under "Readings" above. I have listed, following this paragraph, some other topics on which a paper might be developed. Keep in mind that these are only broad suggestions or contexts from which a specific topic might be defined. Your paper will need to be specific and focused. If you are interested in a particular writer, era, or genre, look for a context into which you might fit your topic. For example, a paper on Nathaniel Hawthorne might be contextualized under Romanticism, the Frontier, or Socialism and Individualism. If you are interested in a broader subject area, look for a specific topic within the larger framework. For example, writing about Individualism and Feminism might lead you to explore the role of women in "rags to riches" literature. I repuire at least one discussion of your topic after you have selected it and before you invest too much time in research. If you have trouble finding a topic. please see me at an early date so I can helo you get started.

Additdional Suggested Topics

Republicanism and Individualism: The Eighteenth Century Background

Individualism and Community on the American Frontier

Individualism and Civil Disobedience

The Rise of Communitarianism

Communal Societies in America

Individualism and Religion in America

Individualism and Capitalism

Individualism and Native Americans

Individualism and Feminism

The Individual and Property

Seminar Presentations: Your seminar presentation will be an oral presentation based on your major paper topic. Preferably this will take the form of a carefully organized lecture rather than a read paper. Plan on about 20 minutes for your presenation. A schedule of individual presentations of both the literature review assignment and the major presentation will be announced.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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