|dc.description.abstract||This dissertation is about hope. It examines works by two nineteenth-century Americans, Herman Melville and William James—particularly Benito Cereno—to make a case for the importance of exercising this religious virtue well, not just in our individual lives but in our national political life. Hope is a prominent theme in American civic life, or at least in the national mythos; yet, as both of these American thinkers diagnose, bad or corrupt relationships to hope can be dangerous, even destructive. So before it makes the case for hope’s positive importance, this dissertation, with the help of Melville and James, addresses ways distorted relationships to hope can have far-reaching negative effects, supporting other pernicious attitudes and behaviors like racism and self-deception.
By extending and applying the insights of Melville and James, this dissertation identifies ways hope can go wrong, ways to cultivate a hopeful disposition, and ways our disposition to hope impacts our perception and action in the world. The first and longest chapter studies a problematic brand of optimism, or how people become adept at not seeing things they do not want to see, and how this practice of unconscious (im)perception is entangled with race and religion in America. The next chapter considers despair as another possible dysfunction of hope connected to perception and highlights the importance of hope as a social virtue. The third chapter considers hope itself; hope as a form of energy that can drive us to act in accordance with our visions of the good, even in the face of what is, on rational calculation, assured failure. This kind of hope, which has much in common with a Christian theological understanding of the virtue, will spur one to transformative action, and it persists even despite the knowledge that its bearer likely will not live to see its success or realization in the world. Thus, this dissertation treats literature as a site where religious or spiritual formation can occur, drawing out the possibilities for fiction to transform our perception of the world and help us become better hopers.||