Alone in America: Solitude, Nature, and the Sacred from Walden to the World Wide Web Open Access

Campbell, Brian G. (2014)

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Drawing on archival research, oral history interviews, and online ethnography, this dissertation traces the cultural history of solitude in North America. Through a series of case studies, I argue solitude is not merely an oddity at the margins, but is a shared symbol of the sacred, powerfully linked with a constellation of trends in contemporary American religion and culture, including the rise of individual spirituality and the decline of religious affiliation, the religious dimensions of nature and place, and the impact of information technologies in facilitating both isolation and connection. I chart the development of a distinctive American tradition of solitude. Thoreau's Walden solidified and spread a particular stereotype and cemented specific practices as defining sacred solitude: simple living, contemplation of nature and self, writing, and moral integrity. In this same late-nineteenth century context, hermits, backcountry guides, environmentalists, and intellectual elites in New York's Adirondack regionestablished a lasting link between solitude and a particular kind of place: wilderness. This link between solitude and the wild deeply influenced the culture of American environmentalism and religion, and directly inspired William James and his theorizing of individual religious experience. I continue to follow this dynamic tradition of solitude as it spread in several tangled strands. Through a series of case studies, I examine those who took up the tradition of wilderness solitude in the twentieth century, at once reinforcing its historic stereotypes and also creatively redefining the norms of sacred solitude. Next, I trace the influence of this wilderness tradition on two small groups of Roman Catholic hermits, who in the 1960s, began to revive ancient Christian traditions of solitude in the North American context. Finally, I examine the impact of communication technologies, which have helped facilitate a surge in the number of individuals living in solitude, and have created new opportunities for those in solitude to connect with one another and the world.

Table of Contents

Preface Introduction

Chapter 1. Constructing Sacred Solitude in Print and in Practice

Chapter 2. Solitude and the Sublime Landscape: Forever Wild

Chapter 3. Solitude in the Wild: Mediating, Managing, and Transforming Tradition

Chapter 4. Charles Brandt and the Hermits of Saint John the Baptist: Restoring the Wilderness Tradition

Chapter 5. Carmelite Hermits in the American Wilderness

Chapter 6. Alone, Together: Networked Solitude in a Networked World

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