How Individualism Conquered American Fiction
On the "Imperial Self" and the Rejection of Social Responsibility
This essay appears in the current issue of The Baffler.
“America is not at any crossroads,” Perry Anderson writes in American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers, his 2015 guide to the rise and scholarly maintenance of the American imperium. Anderson is challenging Francis Fukuyama in particular, the end-of-history theorist who, in his view, fails to reckon with the “staggering accumulation of military bases round the world, or the grip of the United States on the Middle East, let alone symbiosis with Israel.” For Fukuyama and other spinners of imperial-decline narratives, Anderson reserves no sympathy. Intellectual America, he concludes, “is just where it has always been, squaring the circle of philanthropy and empire to its own satisfaction.”
When reading this bracing indictment, I find it disturbing and laughable that few complementary accounts exist in the realm of American cultural, aesthetic, or literary criticism (beyond the work of Fredric Jameson, who is, more or less, German). The notion that American literature might have an imperial bent—that it might be anything other than a string of lightly co-influential works of “imaginative power,” and might itself reflect our national desire to dominate—is lost on its critics, both right and left.
But the possibility of an imperial literature wasn’t always lost on our sly centrist critics, who helped to cultivate it across generations. Throughout the 20th century, many of the foremost critics, like, say, Alfred Kazin, mocked and discarded the leftist social novelists of their time, favoring instead the cultists of a catch-all realism. In Kazin’s view, the main obstruction to a strong national literature was an amorphous “naturalism,” somehow a revival of the 19th-century variety, whose “despairs” boiled down to a tedious anxiety about the disintegration of collective promise. The virtue of realism was twofold: that it celebrated idiosyncrasy as a form of individualist liberation from social life, and that it came to “dominate American fiction,” “[sweeping] at will over every sector of American life.” Over time, the establishment of a Realist Imperium became retroactive proof of its imaginative superiority. On this basis, Kazin deigned to praise the “common talk” of writers like Sherwood Anderson and bestowed upon him the label of “realist,” in recognition of the way the rural writer had “newly liberated” himself from the “village virus.” Urged forth by “a fierce desire to assert [his] freedom,” the literary realist becomes a reverse-Prometheus, stealing fire from the people for the entertainments of the critics on high by absconding from the village with its language. For Kazin, it hardly mattered whether the novelist in question actually went against the realist type—if, perhaps, she was unduly preoccupied with social roles, or if her politics leaned too far left—so long as she could be reshaped with critical force. In On Native Grounds, Edith Wharton is only allowed to be thought a penetrating writer of stratified cosmopolitan life “because she was bored with it.” And Hemingway is extolled because he triumphed against “a society that served only to prey upon the individual.” (This is presumably why he moved to Cuba.)
Today, if a novel is accepted into the American canon, it is as a masterpiece of individualism that subsumes material and social being into the spirit of a lone genius. If a social world is present in a novel of repute, our critics gobble it up and excrete it as imagination. In the early 21st century, realism has come to be synonymous, in the blinkered American critical consensus, with a curiously antisocial novel. It never occurs to critics that realism could only seem real because of the dilapidation of collective dreams. Nor do critics worry that the “social issues” presented in our novels rarely attain the complexity of cable television. Or that a novel genuinely concerned with social life (or even the social role of a single person) could itself, against this backdrop, be idiosyncratic. It’s sad, in other words, that the novels of Jonathan Franzen register to most as sociopolitical literature. Freedom isn’t a social novel on the level of Wharton. It’s a decelerated twenty-four-hour news channel.
Kazin, at a time of crisis, helped ensure that later critics and novelists would operate under the aegis of individualist orthodoxy. As a coda to his project, you might consider the neopragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, who, like Kazin, centered himself against radical parents. Passing as a cautious student of the left, or at least as a public intellectual who endorsed Scandinavian social democracy, Rorty nonetheless pulled European modernists like Proust into his imaginative orbit and turned them into liberal American ironists. In this sense, he became American literary philosophy’s own Fukuyama. He hymned bourgeois virtues—the irreducible gulf between private language and social life—like an end-of-history muse.
But outside the ranks of derivative Foucauldian critics, there was at least one critic of literary imperialism on the American literary scene, though he is largely forgotten. Ironically, Quentin Anderson, who worked alongside Lionel Trilling at Columbia, did not write exhaustively about the rise of the social novel; he instead tracked the formative impulses of our literary ideology back to writers like Emerson, Whitman, and Henry James. There he found the residue of what he called “the imperial self.” Beginning with Emerson’s Nature—the early Emerson whom Anderson’s academic peers largely overlooked—he examined the “imaginative desocialization” of American literature at the hands of a radical individualism that was couched in the vernacular of the combative, Transcendentalist self. There is no doubt that Anderson’s best work, The Imperial Self, cuts against the grain of the criticism of the time; even praise of the book, like Harold Bloom’s (in a characteristically self-serving 1971 review), ignored its arguments that readers should ground literature in social context in order to elevate its idiosyncrasies. For all his labor, Anderson couldn’t escape the strain of post-social thinking he set out to attack. In the end, he was incorporated by Bloom, his generation’s premier Emersonian critic, into the American literary dogma. “The Imperial Self,” Bloom promised, “is another Emersonian manifesto.”
A closer look at The Imperial Self reveals a critique of a literary intellectualism that holds up because it is imaginative, yes, but also because the condition of the novel has not changed much. Just as Perry Anderson assured us that the American imperium is alive and well, the imperial self it relies on is still kicking and screaming in contemporary American fiction. How else to explain why our social novels are curiously antisocial? This is not to lament the totality of contemporary fiction, but to argue that certain imperious authors descend from the Emersonian anti-ethos.
At the heart of Quentin Anderson’s argument is the idea that Emerson erected the archetype of the artist of “incorporation”; he became “the divine child who eats up the world and then, godlike, restores it as the Word. He moved the task of self-validation”—a feat previously achieved through social life—“within.” As Anderson wrote in 1971, “our prime business is no longer imagined as either generation or action, but, ultimately, an exhibition of the power of the self to image the world it has incorporated.” The artist who chews up and digests social and material life, who asks “What world am I to possess?” rather than “What role shall I be given?” is now an undeniable mainstay of American literary idolatry. “For the first time since Aristotle,” Anderson laments, “the habitudes that accompanied the belief that we are social animals were effectively denied on the plane of society itself.” In the place of a “vast vacancy where the effective father state had been,” Emerson inserted his “psychic projections,” his imperial self. He vacuumed nature and society into his enormous ego-mouth. And ever since we hitched our dreams to Emerson’s star, our ideas of “a glorious collective life have run hollow.”
The Imperial Self goes to great lengths to strike at Emerson as the fount of pernicious individualism. At the same time, though, we should affirm that this Emerson is brilliant: the talent and energy required to manipulate his richly variegated strands of religiosity and ambition were never found in the same mixture again. Still, there is the matter of literary tradition. In Emerson’s wake, there was Henry James, who swallowed European social life into his “total imaginative order,” seemingly without learning anything, and brought it back home to America. It’s James whom Anderson, in an earlier book, credits with the “hyper-trophied self”—or, as I like to think of it, a massively engorged ego. There’s also no forgetting Walt Whitman, who transmuted the incorporation and gentrification of the social and material worlds into an act of celebration. If you think that Anderson, by drawing out this lineage, is being cruel, I’d point to Ben Lerner’s recent essay, “The Hatred of Poetry,” which, in its ambivalence, accuses Whitman of changing himself into a “national technology” that “defeat[s] the language and value of existing society,” who “express[es] irreducible individuality in a way that can be recognized socially.” Lerner’s description of Whitman’s parlor trick—making individualism appear to be a social good—isn’t far from Anderson’s critique of the imperial self.
If there’s a blindspot in Anderson’s argument, it’s in his complaint that “the cultural strain Emerson voices may be said to have won out over the possibility of anything ‘national.’” The opposite was true, and this should have been clear to Anderson in the late 1960s, not least because it would come to account for a mutation in the imperial self. The devouring of “social roles,” in Anderson’s view, would preclude the formation of a national consciousness that requires social individuals who do their part. If everyone becomes an amputated transparent eyeball—to adopt Emerson’s insane metaphor from Nature—the nation-building of hands would give way to a glut of shoegazing. Of course, we now know that an oligarchic American empire, crafted from military and market dominance—and the cheap distribution of Emersonian individualism to all corners of the Earth—relied on the elimination of social life both at home and abroad.
Nor did Anderson predict that the Emersonian solipsist, drunk on isolation, self-divorced from society, would become paranoid. If anything, Emerson’s transparent eyeball is now a webcam hacked by the NSA. Or maybe it’s a TV camera. Either way, it’s a technology at the mercy of corporate and government technocrats.
Borrowing from Quentin Anderson’s technique, we can employ a trusty shorthand guide for evaluating the imperial self in contemporary literature: find the author’s idea of nature. Take, for example, Karl Ove Knausgaard, the self-hating Protestant who epitomizes the idea that, in contemporary fiction, the oeuvre is the soul. The work of the author, emptying out his life in the form of an epic act of autofiction, will be judged accordingly at the end of days—but by culture, not God (who is dead). There is, to be fair, a bit of room between Emerson and the Norwegian—he’s from Europe, after all. Where Emerson would gorge himself on Nature, Knausgaard would deny it nihilistically, all the better to make room for the self. And there is no mistaking Knausgaard’s position on nature: “I don’t believe in Nature,” he writes in volume four of My Struggle.
Elsewhere in Europe, there is China Miéville, whose call for “anti-nomian utopia” (in his journal Salvage) eschews Emerson’s formula of nature as a shield against the social, one that he says results “in environmental injustice, in racism.” But Miéville’s world-building project also rehearses a quasi-eschatological language and do-it-yourself-mania that recalls Emerson’s herculean promise that “the sun shall rise by his will.” Maybe that’s why Miéville has the confidence to erect fully realized non-places in his science fiction: if the world is ruined, just pick up the pieces and build a novel out of them.
Whatever tensions arise in the ego-nature relationships of European novelists, they pale in comparison to the power of incorporation flourished by Jonathan Franzen, the one-man vanguard of the 21st-century imperial self. A contradiction-machine worthy of Emerson, Franzen can’t help but chew up the social and natural worlds and digest them non-dialectically. (And, like Emerson, he has a tortured relationship with German thought.)
Since novelists are at their most transparent when giving speeches to graduating college students, it’s worth looking at Franzen’s commencement address to Kenyon College in 2011, which he later repackaged as “Pain Won’t Kill You” in his essay collection Farther Away. In the address, Franzen tells the kids of his struggle to incorporate the pain of his divorce into the art of “not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it.” After the divorce, Franzen felt alienated from the world:
When I was in college, and for many years after, I liked the natural world. Didn’t love it, but definitely liked it. It can be very pretty, nature. And since I’d been fired up by critical theory, and was looking for things to find wrong with the world and reasons to hate the people who ran it, I naturally gravitated to environmentalism, because there were certainly plenty of things wrong with the environment. And the more I looked at what was wrong—an exploding world population, exploding levels of resource consumption, rising global temperatures, the trashing of the oceans, the logging of our last old-growth forests—the angrier and more people-hating I became.
But then something happened: Franzen fell in love with birds. He began to see birds with his ego-eye. “Little by little, in spite of myself,” he writes, “I developed this passion, and although one half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love.” Once he absorbed birds into himself, he goes on, “it became, strangely, easier, not harder, to live with my anger and despair and pain.” Before you know it, an Emersonian doorway has opened upon universality:
How does this happen? I think, for one thing, my love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject. Which is what love will do to a person.
Franzen is up front, in the address, in affirming that the distribution of social roles, the life of a “global citizen,” was insufficient to drive him toward his commitment. And at the end of the essay, this commitment is reserved for two things: novels and journalism. The takeaway of Franzen’s speech is that Kenyon students should find an object or animal in the natural world to incorporate into themselves, “to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject.” Once this aim is accomplished, no obstacle can stand in the way of your career. And no one can call you out for demanding the slaughter of feral cats.
This egoistic relation to nature is everywhere in Franzen’s novels, although not in a way you might expect. In Purity, Franzen avoids stretches of Tolstoy-esque landscaping that you know he’d rather perform; he doesn’t want to capitulate to his media stereotype. Still, he can’t restrain his feeling for Nature going full Emersonian universal:
Warm late-morning air currents were stirring the woods along the road, creating a tapestry of light and shadow so fine-grained and chaotic in its shiftings that no computer on earth could have modeled it. Nature even on the most local of scales made a mockery of information technology. Even augmented by tech, the human brain was paltry, infinitesimal, in comparison to the universe.
There is much of the Romantic intellectual here, in his penetration (and enclosure) of nature—it’s also fair to note, along these lines, that the incorporation artist is usually (probably always) a man. It’s mesmerizing to behold, then, in the next passage, Franzen-man reaching instinctively for the full incorporation gambit:
Matter was information, information matter, and only in the brain did matter organize itself sufficiently to be aware of itself; only in the brain could the information of which the world consisted manipulate itself. The human brain was a very special case. He ought to have felt grateful for the privilege of having had one, of having played his small part in being’s knowledge of itself.
Franzen can’t help himself; the moment he recognizes the infinitude of nature—just seconds after he notes the incapacity of the self (or the brain) to eat it up, he balks. His will to devour matter and information melts into Emersonian self-knowledge, of “having played his small part in being’s knowledge of itself.”
Once you spot Franzen’s ego at work, you’ll remember it forever, like a rare species of bird in the wild. It chirps in his every essay and short story and novel.
In literature, the contemporary imperial self enjoys nothing more than the imaginative disintegration of nature and social life into chewable bits of matter and information. The possessor of this self is a paranoid solipsist, a confused data analyst in service to a literary regime that lacks critical oversight. Franzen’s own paranoia is the one explanation I have for Purity’s devolution from a social novel of austerity and precarity into an espionage thriller. In the early pages, we’re introduced to Pip, a debt-ravaged graduate (not from Kenyon) who struggles to find her place in an America where less is not enough. But Pip’s name should signal to readers that a Dickensian bevy of coincidences will resolve her plot. Meanwhile, Franzen, the NSA of narrators, assumes his paranoia. The novel surveils Andreas Wolf, a character somehow unseen by critics as an extension of Franzen’s tortured sense of being misunderstood, a character who can “know only the emptiness and pointlessness of being.” Well, Wolf is just Franzen after the divorce, but before he learned to subsume birds. He’s the Emersonian author of How to Be Alone, and the imperial self who later wondered whether he should adopt an Iraqi war orphan.
Once you spot Franzen’s ego at work, you’ll remember it forever, like a rare species of bird in the wild. It chirps in his every essay and short story and novel. Even his “contract model” of literary writing, which privileges an easygoing partnership between the reader and writer, one predicated on trust and an asymmetrical distribution of goods, just seems like the Trans-Pacific Partnership of reader-writer agreements.
There is a befuddling joke in the middle of Purity, one that joins Franzen’s humorlessness with his need to create psychic space by munching on his literary descendants. That it comes from the mouth of a disabled professor also hints at Franzen’s estimation of literary academics (or, as Emerson would have put it, the American scholar). The wit, in this case, is Charles Blenheim, a teacher of writing, who reflexively asks Pip about her reading habits:
“Good. Good. And are you a big fan of Jonathan Savoir Faire? So many of my students are.”
“You mean the book about animal welfare?”
“The very one. He’s a novelist, too, I’m told.”
“I read the animal book.”
“So many Jonathans. A plague of literary Jonathans. If you read only the New York Times Book Review, you’d think it was the most common male name in America. Synonymous with talent, greatness. Ambition, vitality.” He arched an eyebrow at Pip. “And what about Zadie Smith? Great stuff, right?”
You’ll recognize the target of the prank as Jonathan Safran Foer, not least because Franzen douses him with so much red paint. And the “animal welfare” book in question is Eating Animals, Foer’s guide to better living through vegetarianism.
Now, it’s unwise to recommend Eating Animals either as a dietary guide (too meandering) or a work of literary value (too meandering). But as a pithy ars poetica for the contemporary incorporation artist, the book is rivaled only by Franzen’s Kenyon speech, to which it bears an uncanny resemblance; it’s as if the two authors are staring at each other in a mirror, licking their lips. Only the image is inverted: where Franzen implores you to assuage your social anxieties by gobbling up birds with your loving eyes, Foer offers absolution by preaching about what not to eat. What is a book about “not eating” other than a moral guide to incorporation? Here’s the brunt of Foer’s case for selective, self-improving ingestion, as it played out in his relationship with his future (and later-to-be-separated) wife, the novelist Nicole Krauss:
Sounds and feels great, but better how? I could think of endless ways to make myself better (I could learn foreign languages, be more patient, work harder), but I’d already made too many such vows to trust them anymore. I could also think of endless ways to make “us” better, but the meaningful things we can agree on and change in a relationship are few. In actuality, even in those moments when so much feels possible, very little is.
Eating animals, a concern we’d both had and had both forgotten, seemed like a place to start. So much intersects there, and so much could flow from it. In the same week, we became engaged and vegetarian.
In Franzen’s case, a divorce is overcome with a resolution about nature—love birds. In turn, a moral pronouncement about nature—don’t eat animals—codifies Foer’s marriage. Yet both writers are preoccupied with using nature to make way for the self, and both choose to expand the self at the expense of social concern. The impetus behind Franzen’s unruly “literary Jonathans” joke is then nothing but the narcissism of shrinking differences. There is no Bloomian swerve—the battle of influence between literary father and son, or between Jonathan, aged 56, and Jonathan, aged 39. The imperial self in American fiction is more often revealed in the anxiety of incorporation. “The soul is not twin-born, but the only begotten,” Emerson wrote in “Experience.” It admits of “no co-life.” At some point, following the lessons of the master, these selves will have to merge.
And indeed Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel is his most Franzenian. If you mixed The Corrections and Freedom, in fact, you’d come to something like Here I Am (with its self-asserting title). Billed as Foer’s “most searching, hard-hitting” novel, it’s chiefly a family drama that addresses, Franzen-like, a narrow run of CNN-quality political issues. (Wolf Blitzer shows up several times to deliver the fake news.) Set in a curiously despatialized Washington, D.C., it ponders the legacy of the Bloch family, from the great-grandfather, Isaac, to the littlest, Benjy. But the protagonists of this movie are the self-consciously bourgeois Jacob and Julia, a divorcing couple, and their distressed son, Sam, who is on the cusp of his bar mitzvah. Lingering in the background of Foer’s claustrophobic therapy session is “the destruction of Israel,” a massively incredible geopolitical scenario that has, for example, Hamas joining the Islamic State. To make a six-hundred-page story shorter: there is near-apocalypse and there is family. Forget the social world in between. It should be no surprise to readers of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—acquainted with its precocious Oskar Schell—that Here I Am leans on a favorite Foer theme: the wisdom of children. Like Emerson, who believed that the soul reveals itself “as a child in time, child in appearance,” Foer privileges the transcendent power of gifted youth, who can incorporate common sense lost to blind adults. As Jacob, his father (a TV writer who once plagiarized Harold Bloom), scrambles to find himself in the wake of a broken marriage, Sam drops knowledge at his bar mitzvah. The scene is made all the more dramatic by its placement between demagogic speeches delivered by adult heads-of-state:
We read Hamlet in school this year, and everybody knows the whole “To be or not to be” business, and we talked about it for like three consecutive classes—the choice between life and death, action and reflection, whatever and whatever. . . . And that got me thinking that also maybe one doesn’t have to exactly choose. “To be or not to be. That is the question. To be and not to be. That is the answer” . . . I did not ask to be a man, and I do not want to be a man, and I refuse to be a man.
For the imperial self, the incorporation artist, children have an enviable advantage: they’ve yet to mature into a social role.
AFTER THE END OF HISTORY
Not all American fiction capitulates to the imperial self, but I would argue that it is pervasive in contemporary literature, especially in the growing number of literary novels that read like television, a medium that churns social life into drivel, that takes for granted a “viewing public” better described as a foam of isolated bubbles—human monads staring at screens. For every piece about sexual violence in Game of Thrones, for instance, there are a thousand tweets about why a character didn’t zigzag before he was shot with an arrow. And for every TV novel, like Foer’s Here I Am—whose protagonist tellingly writes for an HBO series—there is a thick layer of useless bookchat.
And the imperial novel often adopts our Imperial House Style, the free indirect discourse sanctioned by James Wood, our critic-in-chief, who happens to be spiritually one-half Henry James. I’m not the first person in these pages to disparage Wood’s preoccupation with “the fate of the individual,” which relies on conventionally individuated characters—little psychological units lifted painstakingly from Flaubert—as the vertebrae of every decent novel. What’s worse, Wood’s method for cultivating these gently varied individualists is a formal technique stolen from the Emersonian playbook. A masked narrator dips into the space of its characters, renditions them, steals their language as intel, and absconds—newly liberated, Kazin might say. Or, if this is too dramatic, just think of free indirection as a transatlantic treaty signed at gunpoint by Zadie Smith and issued by contemporary American literature’s most successful British colonialist. Either way, free indirect discourse, the First Amendment of literary styles, often feels more smothering than free. It’s no wonder that one of the better American novels of this year, Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs, a book that strenuously avoids free indirect discourse (by its author’s admission), came from a writer born outside of the United States, who knows the style is just another convention.
There are strong contemporary American-born novelists who challenge the ethic of incorporation. One of these offers what Franzen would call a “delicious” irony. (He loves the word “delicious,” which is probably the strongest evidence I’ve offered for my argument.) I’m thinking of the work of Nell Zink, the would-be acolyte of Franzen who firmly rejected his attempt to swallow her wholesale. The story is now somewhat famous. Zink, after a birding adventure, began writing letters to Franzen (and vice versa), which hinted at her wit and narrative resources. After he failed to get her published, she found her way to a small press and literary acclaim without his help. Later, in an interview at Vice, upon the publication of Mislaid, her second novel, Zink observed something about Franzen:
In a weird, contradictory sense, he feels like he’s the avant-garde. People look to the tall white guys to be our avant-garde because they’re the ones who are not obligated to be political, in the sense of advancing some agenda. There’s no great collective injustice that Franzen is trying to right. You know, R-I-G-H-T. He’s the one who can say, “OK, I’m in good condition. I can talk about the novel.” It’s easy for anyone to adopt that pose. It’s just a pose. It’s an artistic position.
What separates this (what we can call, in shorthand, “Zink’s Complaint”) from criticisms you often hear about Franzen is the observation that there is “no great collective injustice that Franzen is trying to right.” He’s not obligated to social problems. He’s self-absolved, an author—an authority—who is perilously untethered from the collective good. And so he’s always aiming at the wrong targets (like Twitter).
More, perhaps, than any American novel of the last two years—with the possible exception of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout—Zink’s Mislaid is pitched against the imperial self. The novel builds its story almost entirely from shifting roles—nothing is sacred here: gender and race and sexuality can change in a matter of pages. The selves in Mislaid are fluid, but they don’t absorb other selves, nature, matter, or information. They exist instead in a near-Spinozistic web of pressured relationships. By Mislaid’s final page, Zink has earned the right to aim her Complaint at Lee, the novel’s resident Emersonian poet, paranoid solipsist, vengeful father to Karen, and engorged ego:
All his life he had been out of his depth. Sexual abuse, domestic violence, a transparently evil social order, poets, academia, etc . . . In a world where people have fixed limits, it’s safest to be an arrogant bastard and push yourself and others to come out on top. But Karen was larger on the inside than on the outside. She had no boundaries. Anything might affect her. She was significant everywhere, like one of those atom bombs that fits in a suitcase. He began to speak and listen and care about the world, and it made him a different person.
Karen, who is open to being affected by others rather than guzzling them down, is what Quentin Anderson would have called “the transitive person,” one “whose world is constituted by [her] ties to other people.” And the transitive person, it turns out, “can smell narcissism afar off, and perhaps can get so far as to say that it is always repeating itself.” Or you could just call her a social animal. The kind you shouldn’t eat.