Sailing, Rafting, Time Traveling, and Strait-Jacketed: The Evolution of the American Adam

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Title: Sailing, Rafting, Time Traveling, and Strait-Jacketed: The Evolution of the American Adam
Author: Berg, Christopher Benjamin
Advisors: Allen F. Stein, Committee Member
Lucinda MacKethan, Committee Member
Thomas D. Lisk, Committee Chair
Abstract: In 1923, D. H. Lawrence asked a question that has dogged American Literature scholars ever since. His work, Studies in Classic American Literature, gave the European perspective on American Literature: Where is this new bird called the true American? Show us the homunculus of the new era. Go on, show us him. Because all that is visible to the naked European eye, in America, is a sort of recreant European. We want to see this missing link of the next era (3-4). High school English teachers perpetuate this myth: many call American Literature "derivative," and arbitrarily assign the birth of American Literature as distinctly American at varying points during the nineteenth century. Before "X" author — Cooper, Poe, Longfellow, Hawthorne, or any of a myriad of others — they claim, American Literature was English Literature in a different setting. Responding to this challenge, R. W. B. Lewis, in his 1955 book, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century, answered Lawrence's challenge, identifying the "true American" in literature as a prelapsarian Adam figure. He culled the name for his American bildungsroman hero from Emerson's Journals: "the plain old Adam, the simple genuine self against the whole world." The authors he named as participating in the myth of the American as Adam read as a canon of nineteenth century American Literature: Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Cooper, and the younger Henry James. These men, he argued, created the identity of an initiatory protagonist who was "morally prior" (128-9) to the world in which he lived. Lewis's work was a stunning success; however, it had several oversights. Lewis also wrote that in our modern era, post-World War II America, the picture of the American as Adam has been "frowned quite out of existence" (195). He bemoaned the "current rigidity" (196) of American Literature, which characterizes positive thinking and innocence as willful ignorance. Ihab Hassan, in a 1961 book entitled Radical Innocence, wrote of contemporary scholars' belief in the idea that current fiction was "a spent form, irrelevant to the goals of a Supersociety committed to a galactic adventure, and therefore no longer receptive to the piteous heroics of the individual soul" (3-4). My thesis will attempt to demonstrate that the American as Adam has not disappeared from our Literature; that, indeed, he had not disappeared even when Lewis wrote his book. I will examine four novels from various periods in American Literature, including Herman Melville's Redburn, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children's Crusade. Redburn being named in Lewis's book as an exemplary novel of the American Adam, I will first examine its protagonist, Wellingborough Redburn. I will explore each character in order to compare the aspects of their Adamic natures. I will compare their encounters with society, their morals, their confrontations with evil, and finally the manner by which each character chooses to continue his life in relation to his fellow man. Furthermore, I will look for ties between them that Lewis may not have found. My conclusion will explain my findings and discuss the evolution of the Adamic figure into the mid-twentieth century.
Date: 2005-06-28
Degree: MA
Discipline: English

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