Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Hermits in American culture

"Cultures of Solitude" is the title of Dr. Ina Bergmann's current research project. An associate professor at the Department of American Studies of the Julius-Maximilians-Universität (JMU) Würzburg in Bavaria, Germany, she is studying a subject that is a recurring theme throughout US history. It is about solitude and seclusion from society as an extreme expression of the American values of freedom and individualism. Bergmann's main interest is how hermits and recluses are depicted in literature and culture.

For the project, the scientist was awarded a highly sought-after fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (USA) for 2015/16, giving her the opportunity to work as a fellow at the renowned Huntington Library in San Marino (California) in spring 2016.

Robert, the hermit of Massachusetts

In the library, the JMU researcher delved into rare writings from the 18th and 19th century such as "Life and Adventures of Robert, the Hermit of Massachusetts, Who has Lived 14 Years in a Cave, Secluded from Human Society: Comprising, an Account of his Birth, Parentage, Sufferings, and Providential Escape from Unjust and Cruel Bondage in Early Life, and His Reasons for Becoming a Recluse. Taken from his own mouth, and published for his benefit" (1829).

"This is the fascinating story of Robert, a hermit and former slave, who lost his freedom due to deceit and was separated by force from his family," Bergmann says. Robert chose solitude and became a hermit out of desperation and distress: "This narrative aptly demonstrates the impact of slavery in the US and the close link of solitude and freedom."

Work on two book projects

Bergmann intends to incorporate her work in the Californian library into a new book. Under the working title "A Cultural History of Solitude in the USA", the book will deal with the history of solitude phenomena and their by-products. However, the book also covers current aspects such as criticism of society and consumption, desire of freedom, environmentalism and newer lifestyle trends focused on deceleration and simplicity.

The gleanings from Huntington will also be included in a collection of essays which Ina Bergmann is preparing with Ph.D. student Stefan Hippler. The volume will comprise all presentations held at the "Cultures of Solitude" conference organised by Bergmann at the JMU in July 2015. Among the participants were scholars of literature, culture, media and historical science from the US, Canada, Ireland, France and Germany who have specialised in American Studies. Additionally, the collection set to be published in 2016 will include a number of other essays written specifically for this purpose.

Ina Bergmann

Since 1998, Ina Bergmann has been teaching at the University of Würzburg's Department of American Studies where she also did her PhD and qualified as a professor. Other milestones of her teaching career include State University of New York in Albany, the University of Vienna (Austria) and the University of Konstanz (Germany).

A specialist in American Studies, she has studied women's literature, short stories, historical novels, contemporary drama, musicals, films and television and other topics. Her current project on the cultures of solitude will continue positively for her -- with a fellowship from Trinity College Dublin (Ireland) that has recently nominated her "Trinity Long Room Hub Visiting Research Fellow" for 2016/17.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Hermits in American culture”. EurekAlert. Posted: May 4, 2016. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-05/uow-hia050416.php

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