In The Life and Undeath of Autonomy in American Literature, Geoff Hamilton charts the evolution of the fundamental concept of autonomy in the American imaginary across the span of the nation’s literary history. Whereas America’s ideological roots are typically examined in relation to Enlightenment Europe, this book traces the American literary representation of autonomy back to its pastoral, political, and ultimately religious origins in ancient Greek thought. Tracking autonomy’s evolution in America from the Declaration of Independence to contemporary works, Hamilton considers affinities between American and Greek literary characters—Natty Bumppo and Odysseus, Emerson’s “poet” and Socrates, Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden and Callicles—and reveals both what American literary history has in common with that of ancient Greece and what is distinctively its own.
The author argues for the link with antiquity not only to understand better the boundaries between self and society but also to show profound transitions in the understanding of autonomy from a nourishing liberty of fulfillment, through an aggressive agency destructive to both human and natural worlds, to a sterile isolation and detachment. The result is an insightful analysis of the history of individualism, the evolution of frontier mythology and American Romanticism, and the contemporary representation of social alienation and violent criminality.