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Mollinger, S. (1983). On Hawthorne, Emerson and Narcissism. Psychoanal. Rev., 70(4):571-594.

(1983). Psychoanalytic Review, 70(4):571-594

On Hawthorne, Emerson and Narcissism

Shernaz Mollinger

Our contemporary levels of self-concern make it difficult to believe that the self has not always taken up quite so much room as it now does. The Modernist challenge to the “bourgeois myth” of society resulted in a self extended to fill the void left by the collapsed validity of everything else, and this extended self is reflected again and again in the self-referential literature of this century. Much has been written recently about the “new narcissism” and also about the self-involvement (text-involvement) of many 20th century literary texts. However, in America at least the phenomenon is not all that new. The abstracting, idealizing, cavalier morality, obsession with immediacy and superficial affects that are typical narcissistic defenses may be found in the culture of our time, as Christopher Lasch (1979) has argued, but they are also quite evident in the literature and thought of early 19th century New England. The reasons for this have to do with a pervasive and long-term undermining of authority, an undercutting that characterizes the modernist period but that in America had already surfaced by the 18th century and that then achieved, along with the growth of self that was its concomitant, a remarkably full expression in the language and thought of some American Renaissance writers.

The aim of this essay is to look at the question of narcissism in the work of Hawthorne and Emerson in relation to the historical situation in which they wrote. Hawthorne and Emerson, in both their lives and their writing, represent the opposing possibilities available to the American self in the early 19th century. The opposition can be seen as the culmination of a century-long movement away from god and to self, as the result of a drastic shift from the god-centered universe of early New England to a world where Emerson's radical individualism

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