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Voices of Despair: Four Motifs in American…

Voices of Despair: Four Motifs in American Literature

by Edward Stone

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The main focus of Stone's book, which he sets up in the prologue, is to trace the evolving themes of optimism and pessimism in American literature (and its past influences). He does this by dividing his attentions between four symbols or concepts - An Animal, A Color, A Life, and a Phrase - and tracing how attitudes towards those focal points changed with the cultural shifts throughout the early centuries of America's dawn.

The bulk of the discussions in the book are existential in nature, having to do mostly with the perception of where mankind and the individual stand in the grand scheme of things. In "An Animal," Stone outlines the multiple references to ants over the years when used for both comparison and contrast to people (both singular and plural). White is the closely examined in A "Color" as a symbol for death or the lack of existence. The individual chosen for "A Life" is Edward Eggleston, who drifted away from religion throughout his writing career. Finally, "A Phrase" explores "Nothing at all," and delves deeply into the growth of the existentialist movement as writers and philosophers alike grappled with "being and nothingness."

Through all four section, Stone relies heavily on historical context as well as textual evidence from a multitude of sources as he traces what he sees as a steady shift from optimism and hope to pessimism and despair as the newly formed America slowly evolved from rural naturalism to industrialized capitalism. His attention to the minutia of the literary output of this period of history is both impressive and daunting, but he more than makes his case for what he sees as a progressive move of the national culture from a "half glass full" to a "glass half empty" societal outlook. Stone's work is expansive, and fans of literature, philosophy, and history will all find more than enough food for thought. ( )
  smichaelwilson | May 15, 2015 |
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"La verite monte d'un coup d'aile jusqu'au symbole." - Emile Zola
To Joseph Ingraham Stone
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This book is an attempt to write a history of despair in the literature of the United States: of the conflict between optimism and pessimism, between the concepts of design and chaos.
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