The Ethics of Intensity in American Fiction

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Drawing upon the philosophical theories of William James, Dewey, and Mead and focusing upon major works by Whitman, Stein, Howells, Dreiser, and Henry James, Anthony Hilfer explores how these authors have structured their characters' consciousness, their purpose in doing so, and how this presentation controls the reader's moral response. Hilfer contends that there was a significant change in the mode of character presentation in American literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The self defined in terms of a Victorian ethic and judged adversely for its departures from that code shifted to the self defined in terms of emotional intensity and judged adversely for its failures of nerve. In the first mode, characters are almost always wrong to yield to desire; in the second, characters are frequently wrong not to and, in fact, are seen less as the sum of their ethical choices than as the process of their longings. His conclusion: modern fiction is as overbalanced toward pathos as Victorian fiction was toward ethos. but the continued dialectic between the two is a tension that ought not be resolved.