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The Life and Undeath of Autonomy in American Literature

Geoff Hamilton

BUY Cloth · 168 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813935287 · $55.00 · Dec 2013
BUY Paper · 168 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813935294 · $24.50 · Dec 2013
BUY Ebook · 168 pp. · ISBN 9780813935300 · $24.50 · Dec 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.


The Life and Undeath of Autonomy in American Literature skillfully relates concepts from Greek sources to writings from the inaugural phase of American democracy through the present day. The book provides new and valuable information about the extensive history of selfhood as it relates to power in American thinking. The most important contribution is the implication that autonomy is a modifiable construct rather than a human endowment. By tracing its construction from the classical Greek writings so fundamental to American education and carefully demonstrating its permutations in influential American texts, Geoff Hamilton introduces a radical concept that has real-world consequences.

Marilyn C. Wesley, Hartwick College, author of Violent Adventure: Contemporary Fiction by American Men

About the Author(s): 

Geoff Hamilton is Assistant Professor of English at York University in Toronto.

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