The Law of the Heart is a vigorous challenge to the prevailing concept of the “antidemocratic” image of the self in the American literary and cultural tradition. Sam B. Girgus counters this interpretation and attempts to develop a new understanding of democratic individualism and liberal humanism in American literature under the rubric of literary modernism.
The image of the individual self who retreats inward, conforming to a distorted “law of the heart,” emerges from the works of such writers as Cooper and Poe and composer Charles Ives. Yet, as Girgus shows, other American writers relate the idea of the self to reality and culture in a more complex way: the self confronts and is reconciled to the paradox of history and reality.
In Girgus’ view, the tradition of pragmatic, humanistic individualism provides a foundation for a future where individual liberty is a major priority. He uses literary modernism as a bridge for relating contemporary social conditions to crises of the American self and culture as seen in the works of writers including Emerson, Howells, Whitman, Henry James, William James, Fitzgerald, Bellow, and McLuhan.