“Out of many, one.” But how do the many become one without sacrificing difference or autonomy? This problem was critical to both identity formation and state formation in late 18th- and 19th-century America. The premise of this book is that American writers of the time came to view the resolution of this central philosophical problem as no longer the exclusive province of legislative or judicial documents but capable of being addressed by literary texts as well.
The project of E Pluribus Unum is twofold. Its first and underlying concern is the general philosophic problem of the one and the many as it came to be understood at the time. W. C. Harris supplies a detailed account of the genealogy of the concept, exploring both its applications and its paradoxes as a basis for state and identity formation.
Harris then considers the perilous integration of the one and the many as a motive in the major literary accomplishments of 19th-century U.S. writers. Drawing upon critical as well as historical resources and upon contexts as diverse as cosmology, epistemology, poetics, politics, and Bible translation, he discusses attempts by Poe, Whitman, Melville, and William James to resolve the problems of social construction caused by the paradox of e pluribus unum by writing literary and philosophical texts that supplement the nation’s political founding documents.
Poe (Eureka), Whitman (Leaves of Grass), Melville (Billy Budd), and William James (The Varieties of Religious Experience) provide their own distinct, sometimes contradictory resolutions to the conflicting demands of diversity and unity, equality and hierarchy. Each of these texts understands literary and philosophical writing as having the potential to transform-conceptually or actually-the construction of social order.
This work will be of great interest to literary and constitutional scholars.