Alone in America: The Stories That Matter

January 10, 2013

In 1953, Hannah Arendt would speak of loneliness, "once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age", as having become "an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century". She saw it as particularly problematic in the US, a result of a "craving for being loved and accepted", which, when not reciprocated, produced a deep sense of isolation. Robert Ferguson, too, sees loneliness in distinctively American terms. Reaching back to Alexis de Tocqueville, he suggests that a "separating individualism" has marked US culture historically, typified by "suspicion of others, narrow social engagement, and a presentism that loses interest in relationships across time". This condition is exaggerated by "the openness, mobility, uncertainty and flux in (what was originally) a spacious new country". Ferguson categorises aloneness in terms of solitude (a sought condition), vulnerability (a limiting condition) and loneliness (a negative condition). This is close to the typology Arendt uses - her third term is isolation, not vulnerability - although Ferguson seems unaware of her work.

Ferguson focuses in particular on what he calls a faltering domesticity, the loss or potential loss of the home, and the solitary reflection and understanding that form a response to this, allowing recovery or renewal. He structures his book around the power of what Ralph Waldo Emerson calls the "lords of life": moments that interrupt and challenge day-to-day existence and lead us to reconsider the meaning of our lives. He argues (questionably) that such disruptions, moments of "failure, betrayal, change, defeat, breakdown, fear, difference, age and loss", "isolate victims in America with a particular intensity". The author's various intentions here, despite their interrelatedness, give his book a sense of diffuseness. The very range of American literature he discusses, a series of texts from Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle through to Don DeLillo's Falling Man, only adds to this impression. And although his readings of these texts are always perceptive and interesting, the book itself appears under-researched: the bibliographic section on Huckleberry Finn, for example, lists few critical works specifically on Twain, and none written later than 1968.

The other authors Ferguson considers here include Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, Zora Neale Hurston and Henry Roth, Saul Bellow and Marilynne Robinson, among others. That, in a book about loneliness, he pays no extended attention either to Herman Melville or to Sherwood Anderson seems positively perverse. He ends with a chapter on Walt Whitman, concentrating mainly on Specimen Days as "a manual for coping with desolation" - with distress, loneliness, old age and the too-swift passing of time. He argues, both here and more generally, that it is the power of literature to form connections "across time of what we are to each other", to give expression to "a reliable voice, one that might unlock our own when in crisis or conflict". Such texts, then, become lessons as to how we, too, can cope with loneliness, and might live alone.

While I am not unsympathetic to Ferguson's desire to see in literature (quoting Cicero) "the companion that never lets me down", his emphasis on the individual subject and what makes that subject "whole and accountable" tends, to my mind, to underplay that fractured sense of (postmodern) subjectivity that results from the numerous sets of roles, values, expectations and web of constraining circumstance that (also) make up our lives. The historical sweep and relative brevity of this book, too, militate against any deep discussion of the way loneliness and its manifestations can be measured in terms of changing cultural, social and economic circumstances. This is not, then, quite the book that Ferguson's important subject deserves.

Alone in America: The Stories That Matter

By Robert A. Ferguson

Harvard University Press

296pp, £20.95

ISBN 9780674066762 and 68032 (e-book)

Published 25 January 2013

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