American literature's encounters with solitude

Alone in America: the Stories that Matter - review.

Ferguson explores "aloneness" in the American literary imagination. Photograph: Gregory Crewdson, courtesy of the Gagosian Gallery

Alone in America: the Stories that Matter
Robert A Ferguson
Harvard University Press, 296pp, £20.95

Robert A Ferguson opens Alone in America: the Stories that Matter by explaining that this is a book about American literature’s encounters with solitude. Arguing that aloneness acquires a special valence in the US, thanks to “the openness, mobility, uncertainty and flux in (what was originally) a spacious new country”, Ferguson identifies three ways in which people experience being alone: solitude, vulnerability and loneliness.

These distinctions seem, prima facie, somewhat dubious: are Americans really more susceptible to estrangement than others? Is vulnerability a type of aloneness or rather one (of many) possible feelings consequent to it? Not content with conflating vulnerability and aloneness, Ferguson soon adds an array of feelings and experiences to the mix. Using Ralph Waldo Emerson’s metaphor of the “lords of life”, by which Emerson meant our inevitable encounters with alienation, disruption and grief, Ferguson tells us that loneliness will acquire dif - ferent faces over the course of his study: “Their names in the chapters that follow are failure, betrayal, change, defeat, breakdown, fear, difference, age and loss.” Yet, like vulnerability, none of these feelings are definitionally related to loneliness: they may entail it or result from it but they can also exist quite independently.

One begins to wonder which emotions and experiences are excluded, especially when Ferguson further glosses his project by saying it is about disrupted domesticity, in what seems almost a non sequitur. “The novel of domesticity – domesticity on the edge of dissolution – is therefore our subject.” It is? It is difficult to see why loneliness must converge with domesticity, except in so far as most of these characters have homes.

Nor do problems with the book’s logic of inclusion end here. The American writers who explore domesticity on the edge of dissolution in tales that represent experiences of loneliness and solitude, in order of appearance, are: Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain and Henry James. So far, so fair. But paired with Henry James comes Zora Neale Hurston, one of the odder couples in recent memory. Edith Wharton is next but then we jump back to Emerson. Next Henry Roth, followed by William Faulkner, who is paired with Toni Morrison. Forward to Saul Bellow, Don DeLillo and Marilynne Robinson. Then back to Walt Whitman to end, with a little fillip from Cicero.

It seems nearly inexplicable that Herman Melville could be excluded from a study of solitude in American literature. Melville called Ishmael in Moby-Dick “isolato” and “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is one of American fiction’s greatest tales of existential estrangement. Yet Ferguson includes Jo March from Little Women, one of the least solitary figures imaginable. Perhaps the rationale for this choice is the book’s stated interest in domesticity – but how, then, to explain rejecting a poet renowned for her exploration of domestic solitude, Emily Dickinson, in favour of Whitman, one of America’s loudest voices of communality and life out of doors? The arbitrariness of the choice of writers simply compounds the indefiniteness of Ferguson’s subject. Almost any writer or any book could have qualified: are there any books about human beings that do not at some point touch on solitude or estrangement?

Given the amount of ground it seeks to cover, Alone in America is surprisingly brief, at under 300 pages. Many of the chapters pair writers: not just James and Hurston but also Twain and Alcott or DeLillo and Robinson. As a result, the books under discussion often receive only a scant few pages, mini-essays that may or may not engage directly with ideas of aloneness. I remain unconvinced that Janie Crawford’s controversial silence during the courtroom scene in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is a function of her prior solitude, which Ferguson all too often conflates with any internal life or reflection at all.

Comparing Little Women and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ferguson declares, “A reader who loves both stories is rare indeed.” Jo March and Huck Finn are two of the most beloved characters in American literature: surely readers who don’t love them both are the rare breed? “The children in these books charm us by being good,” Ferguson adds, but this is reductive and inadequate. Little Lord Fauntleroy is a good child but he is also an entirely nauseating one; Jo March and Huck Finn charm readers not because they are good but because they are tempted constantly to be bad, while trying very hard to be good. Reading and writing are both (primarily) solitary acts and yet this study of aloneness in literature never reflects on that fact; but it is happy to veer off to discuss New Yorkers in DeLillo’s Falling Man, although the trauma of 11 September 2001 was as much collective as it was individual.

There are some lapses: John Ames does not have an aneurysm in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead but a more symbolic problem with his heart (angina pectoris). More important, Ferguson’s reading of the novel is naive, accepting the goodness of Robinson’s narrator on face value without recognising the epiphany that Ames shares at the end. Suddenly confronted with his own self-deceptions and failures of generosity, Ames tells us: “I woke up this morning thinking this town might as well be standing on the absolute floor of hell for all the truth there is in it, and the fault is mine as much as anyone’s.” Ferguson is similarly content to accept the Iowa in Gilead as a place that represents “the traditional values” of America’s “heartland”. This is to overlook how often Robinson tells us in the novel that Iowa was once the “shining star of radicalism” in the US.

This is not to say that Alone in America lacks insight or originality. Grace and wisdom are both to be found in these miniessays but they are also often peripheral and tangential. Ferguson is mostly an able writer, who refrains entirely from indulging in academic discourse or pedantry. Yet his style is not without mannerism: I have never read such an excitable work of criticism. Rip Van Winkle “discovers that his neighbours have no interest in bringing him back to life!” Are we supposed to share his incredulity? When Isabel Archer is “excited” by the possibility of the death of Mr Touchett in Portrait of a Lady, Ferguson adds: “The admission suggests more than distance from the dying man!” Saul Bellow’s elderly Artur Sammler “avoids the vortices of anger and disgust that exist between the generations, and he does so by manifesting the best qualities of youth!” Three sentences later: “He has even managed to join the young running in Riverside Park!” There is something ingenuous in this astonishment at fictional characters’ reactions; it is rather winning, like a child excited at reading that Superman can fly, but it does rather undermine Ferguson’s authority. “Fortunately, Sammler is unusually intelligent, as well as nimble and discerning!” Unfortunately, exclamations are not!

In conclusion, Ferguson quotes Cicero, who called literature “the companion that never lets us down”, immediately following this aphorism with a useful gloss: “The companion that never lets us down!” Ferguson is a professor of law, literature and criticism at Columbia, so he should understand better than most that law and literature share a similar burden of proof – that evidence requires explanation. Advocates do not simply wave evidence around in court, exclaiming, “A footprint!” Nor should critics be content with shouting, “Literature is our friend!”

Sarah Churchwell’s next book, “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of ‘The Great Gatsby’”, will be published by Virago in June