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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 notion of the autonomous subject, able to chart a path toward self-determination. Yet novelists have often 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 these maladies of the will 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, one 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, both the will’s grandeur and its perversity emerge as it alternately aligns itself with and pits itself against a bigger Will—whether that of God, the state, society, history, or life itself.  At a time when invocations of autonomy appear alongside the medicalization of many behaviors, and when democracy’s tenet of popular will has come into doubt, Maladies of the Will provides a road map to how we got here, and how we might think these vital dilemmas anew.

512 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2022

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

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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