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The Plight Of The Common Man In Herman Melville's Bartleby, The Scrivener

4414 words - 18 pages

George Edward Woodberry, author of the Heart of Man, published in 1899, emphasized the significance of the role of the individual as an active and equal partner in American democratic rule: The doctrine of the equality of mankind by virtue of their birth as men, with its consequent right to equality of opportunity for self-development as a part of social justice, establishes a common basis of conviction, in respect to man, and a definite end as one main object of the State; and these elements are primary in the democratic scheme. Liberty is the next step, and is the means by which that end is secured. It is so cardinal in democracy to strive for a balance between the individual and the mass, so that the identification of the common man as an American ensures him of the promises proposed by the government. (226-227).

During the early 1800's, America struggled with the search for identity and the shift toward Liberal Individualism. The revolutionary words of freedom, equality, and brotherhood gave birth to the doctrine of government by the people, for the people, and of the people. These principles were the substance of democracy; these tenets, though fundamentally sound and idealistically honorable, seemed elementary, but to assume that the ideals of democracy were rudimentary and easily attained was a national betrayal. This betrayal, depicted as the futility of the individual to achieve political and representational inclusion in the government and, more importantly, the realization of his importance, belied the struggle.

The shift toward Liberal Individualism created the need for a balance between the individual and the community. The election of 1828, which propelled Andrew Jackson to national prominence, marked the emergence of the voice of the common man; "democracy lay ahead, while a traditional concept of stately honor was unwilling to yield to it" (Burstein 195). This unwillingness to alter national traditions was evident in the struggle between the individual and the community. However, with the emphasis now on the advancement of the individual, many citizens wondered how the new country would maintain the national community. In an attempt to address this struggle, Romantic writers such as Melville concerned themselves with an escape from the traditions and the authorities of the past. In promoting the formation of a unique American Literature with a unique national identity, the Romantics created the interplay between the reader and the writer and, in doing so, stressed the importance of the interdependence between the individual and the community. Romantic authors critically studied the social values of the emerging democratic nation in order to create a new identity rather than a representation. Hawthorne and Melville defined the Romance genre as the self-conscious expression of nineteenth-century America: a common vision of our literature as distinguished from an English literary tradition. Ironically, the most...

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