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Individualism, community, and democracy: Melville's critique of liberalism in the later novels

Juro Otsuka, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation seeks to analyze Herman Melville's later novels— Pierre (1852), Israel Potter (1855) and The Confidence-Man (1857)—for their treatment of one of the most fundamental ethico-political problems of liberal democracy: namely, how to achieve a viable communal solidarity without attenuating the individual. Traditional liberal theorists have sought some sort of ahistorical universal common ground to reconcile the opposing claims of the individual and community such as the social contract, moral sentiment, and Reason. However, Melville's later novels urge us to reject such solutions. These novels not only cast doubts upon the essentialist claim of resolution but also call into question the viability of the very idea of “reconciling” the two opposing claims, for reconciliation is not only irrelevant but also detrimental in a liberal democratic society where values are diversified and fluid. Building upon the ideals of liberal democracy advocated by pragmatic thinkers such as John Dewey and Richard Rorty, the present study argues that what democracy demands is not “resolution” of conflicts by discovering ahistorical universal common ground but a culture that is sensitive to the contingency and complexity of political practice and, thereby, to the precariousness of the interdependent relationships between individual and community, variety and oneness, difference and identity. Melville's later novels help us cultivate a democratic attitude that is tentative, experimental, provisional, improvisatory, eclectic, and even contradictory. They offer not only critique of liberalism but also, through its narrative strategies, a textual community where effective democratic action—doing and experiencing democracy—takes place. Thus, against ideological criticisms that tend to see literary texts as mere reflections of socio-economic aspects of society, this dissertation seeks to demonstrate that literary texts can serve as an effective means of cultural transformation.

Subject Area

American literature

Recommended Citation

Otsuka, Juro, "Individualism, community, and democracy: Melville's critique of liberalism in the later novels" (2000). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9978536.