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Maladies of the Will

The American Novel and the Modernity Problem

An examination of the nineteenth-century American novel that argues for a new genealogy of the concept of the will.

What if the modern person were defined not by reason or sentiment, as Enlightenment thinkers hoped, but by will? Western modernity rests on the ideal of the autonomous subject, charting a path toward self-determination. Yet novelists have portrayed the will as prone to insufficiency or excess—from indecision to obsession, wild impulse to melancholic inertia. Jennifer Fleissner’s ambitious book shows how the novel’s attention to the will’s maladies enables an ongoing interrogation of modern premises from within.

Maladies of the Will reveals the nineteenth-century American novel’s relation to a wide-ranging philosophical tradition, highly relevant to our own tumultuous present. In works from Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter to Elizabeth Stoddard’s The Morgesons and Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, the will’s grandeur and its perversity emerge as it alternately aligns itself with and pits itself against a bigger Will—whether of God, the state, society, history, or life itself. Today, when invocations of autonomy appear beside the medicalization of many behaviors, and democracy’s tenet of popular will has come into doubt, Maladies of the Will provides a map to how we got here, and how we might think these vital dilemmas anew.

504 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2022

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature, General Criticism and Critical Theory


“In this brilliant, utterly singular study of the will, the modern individual, and modernity itself as problems, Fleissner makes a stunning intervention in the history and theory of the novel. It is no exaggeration to say that Maladies of the Will is on par with the achievements of Ian Watt and György Lukács. But Fleissner’s ability to combine astonishing erudition with deft diagnoses of critical impasses in our present strikes me as unparalleled. This book marks nothing less than a historical turning point in how we will read literature.”

Sianne Ngai, University of Chicago

“Full of dazzling philosophical insight, Maladies of the Will offers a striking new way to understand the American novel. Fleissner shows us how the novel is uniquely equipped to grapple with the irreducible strangeness of the human will. To evade the problem of the will––as some strands of current thought tend to do––is to miss what novels have uncovered about the dilemmas of agency that continue to define our lives. A tremendous achievement.”

Nancy A. Bentley, University of Pennsylvania

Table of Contents

   The Book’s Organization
   Chapter Descriptions
Introduction: The Novel and the Will
   Literary-Critical (from Lionel Trilling to Zadie Smith)
   Historical (from Augustine to Romanticism)
   Theoretical (from Locke and Sentimentalism to Pragmatism and Affect—and an Alternative to Both)
1 Before and After the Novel: Abyssal Modernity and the Interior Life of the Will
   The Strange Problem of Too Much Interiority
   The “Awfully Expanded World”: Seventeenth-Century Selfhood and Its Precursors
   The Eighteenth Century Tames the Self
   The Return of the Wilderness Within, from the Gothic to Kant
   Law and Freedom in The Scarlet Letter
2 Vitalizing the Bildungsroman
   The Bildungsroman as a Body’s Story
   The Birth of Medical Vitalism: The Body as Wayward Will
   Vitalist Legacies, I: Sensibility, Romanticism, and the Birth of Psychology
   The Morgesons as Vitalist Bildungsroman
   The Reflex and the Return to Mechanism
   Vitalist Legacies, II: The Alternative Neovitalisms of Goldstein and Canguilhem
3 General Willfulness: Moby-Dick and Romantic Sovereignty
   Modernity’s Two Wills
   Ahab, or Anatomizing the Romantic Will (Hegel, Fichte, Lukács)
   Ishmael and Intensity (Spinoza, Schopenhauer)
   The General Will (Rousseau, Arendt)
   Coda: Pip’s Dissent
4 The James Brothers at Century’s End: Mysticism, Abstraction, and the Forms of Social Life
   William and the Will
   Four Visions of Sociality: Intermingling, Fusion, Intersubjectivity, Form
   William and the Sick Soul
   The Social Phantasmagoria of The Ambassadors
5 “Begin All Over Again”: Naturalism, Habit, and the Embodiment of the Will
   Evolutionary Economics and the Moral Danger of Doing Nothing
   The Brute’s Two Faces: Frank Norris’s Vandover
   Subjects of Interest and Habit in Contemporary Theory: Sedgwick, Berlant, Foucault
   Nietzsche’s Return to Vitalism
   Coda: Humanization Run Wild
6 Narrative and Its Discontents: Racial Justice, Existential Action, and the Problem of the Past
   The “Racial Politics of Temporality,” Then and Now (Hopkins and Dunbar)
   The Realist Insistence: Chesnutt’s Marrow of Tradition
   A Certain Distance: The Uncanny Everyday (Spillers and Freud)
   Du Bois and the Moment of Hesitation

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