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Abstract

This project studies the relationship between, first, ascendant forms of ethical and political individualism and, second, models of collective life in nineteenth-century literature. Drawing on German, British, and American sources, I argue for an unrecognized concern in narrative fiction: if we take the individual to be the building block of social life, how does the community come together? To introduce my own investigations, I consider the canonical genre cases of the picaresque, epistolary novel, and the Bildungsroman, all of which contribute terms by which the individual emerges in what I call a “novel of individualism.” I argue that Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is an archetype of this genre. The novel of individualism, I argue further, is a strand of narrative fiction that explores how communities and traditions will be (re-)constructed through specific models of individual capability. These novels understand collective life as an exercise in “responsible fantasy,” or a working-out of the terms by which individuals can reasonably comprehend and assent to the social whole. I build this argument through long case studies of three texts. First, Goethe’s second Wilhelm Meister novel, the Journeyman Years, which takes the medieval craft guild as an extended metaphor for how the individual’s choice of vocation leads to a community defined by shared intentions. Second, in George Eliot’s novels The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda, which develop what I term “organic individualism” to imagine the nation as an extension of the shared sympathy possible in small-scale English village life. Third, I consider Herman Melville’s obscure long poem Clarel, which reimagines the ritual of pilgrimage as an act that transforms collective religious traditions into a decision by the individual.

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