Brace’s Rock, by Fitz Henry Lane (1863)

Barbara Novak begins her book, Voyages of the Self: Pairs, Parallels and Patterns in American Art and Literature, with an exploration of the problematic concept of self:

The idea of self is…an artificial construct…Yet the word is common enough even in everyday usage for a cultural community to agree, to some extent, on a kind of consensus. There is something within every human being that we commonly call a “self.” Loss of that self is generally considered a grievous wound. Its willing surrender, on the other hand, can be considered in religious and philosophical terms, a blessed arrival at another state of being. In some instances the self is conflated with the idea of soul.

With that as her starting point, Novak then charters an unexpected journey. An art historian by training, she has paired writers and artists who share particular similarities. The couplings are in some ways surprising: Copley and Edwards, Emerson and Lane, Whitman and Church, Homer and James, Pollock and Olson, among others. But insights emerge from these partnerings that are fresh, provocative, meaningful.

Novak locks in on a few salient themes that are rooted in the early American experience:

This book came into being out of my initial interest in what I have called the “erasure of self” so prized by the early American Puritan culture and in its visual manifestation in some images from the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. I then discovered that the ostensible erasure of self was not so much a loss as a transfer, at times a transfer into matter or object, into “things,” and through erasure of the artist’s signature, “stroke,”to an ostensible larger self referred to by Emerson as the Over-Soul. So one subtext here might be the role of “things” as they relate to self in American culture.

That’s a compelling theme to me, and one that has a long lineage. Novak rides it out thoughtfully and thoroughly, from Edwards to Emerson, from Dickinson to Olson. A good read for writers, readers and artists.

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