Self-improvement and the American enlightenment in Catharine Maria Sedgwick and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
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Griffis, Rachel B., 1983-
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The title of my dissertation alludes to Benjamin Franklin’s plan for moral perfection, a project encapsulating the specifically “American” Enlightenment values that shape improvement projects and conceptions of virtue in the nineteenth century. My research, therefore, focuses on responses to the American Enlightenment by drawing on the writings and achievements of figures such as Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, particularly their understandings of freedom and its relationship to improvement, virtue, and human potential. In the first half of the project, I argue that Catharine Maria Sedgwick reacts positively to the American Enlightenment by representing self-improvement as an indisputable good, by suggesting that rational human beings can be trusted to give up their freedom voluntarily for the good of their communities, and finally, by applauding the attenuation of America’s Puritan religious heritage, which was replaced by more rational versions of Christianity in the nineteenth century. In the second half, I turn to Nathaniel Hawthorne for a darker interpretation of Enlightenment ideals. Many of Hawthorne’s villains are men whose intellectual endeavors take them beyond the goal of improvement, either of self or society, and into the realm of obsession and destruction. Although Hawthorne shares some of Sedgwick’s assumptions, his work is more concerned with exploring the blind spots of Enlightenment rather than bringing its values to fruition. Sedgwick and Hawthorne, in both promoting and challenging the values of the American Enlightenment, demonstrate how this movement shaped the concept of improvement, one of the prevailing moral traditions in American culture.