American Literature Research Seminar: Maladies of the Will: The American Novel and the Modernity Problem

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. This talk shows how the novel’s attention to the will’s maladies enables an ongoing interrogation of modern premises from within, revealing the nineteenth-century American novel’s relation to this wide-ranging philosophical tradition.

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.