Guide The Post-Liberal Imagination: Political Scenes from the American Cultural Landscape

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Are We There Yet? The digital transformation of government and th View Wishlist. Our Awards Booktopia's Charities. Are you sure you would like to remove these items from your wishlist? Remove From Wishlist Cancel. In this meta-fictional way, Zuckerman internalizes within his writing some of the accusatory, anti-literary sentiments that he is in fact trying to dispel as entirely irrelevant to the literary merits of his work. Although he is positioned in contrariety to such viewpoints, Zuckerman is also somewhat beholden to them in so far as his fiction is itself engendered by a desire to subject the concrete certainties by which others conceptualize the world around them to the looser plane of the imagination.

As a result of this anxious form of literary introspection, he is unable to write about little more than the internal struggles of the self as author. I want an active connection to myself.

The problems that Zuckerman painfully endures in The Anatomy Lesson are ones that gradually develop and intensify over the first five novels. However, the public dramas that each of these texts unfold are still decidedly personal in trajectory and scope. As such, they share with famed Roth characters like Zuckerman and Alexander Portnoy a desire to overcome the nightmares of the past by living in a way that exceeds the limits set by their social facticity.

American Identity in the Age of Trump with George Packer

Philip Roth and the American Liberal Tradition seeks to offer a fresh understanding of how Roth treats certain aspects of American history in the American trilogy by exploring how these novels closely re-examine issues of literary technique and authorial subjectivity that have dominated his entire body of writing. As such, this book sets out to combine our existing understanding of Philip Roth as a significant literary stylist with evidence of his additional role as a novelist who is deeply interested in larger public issues within American life over the past eighty or so years.

My argument moves further beyond its main focus on the American trilogy by illustrating how the peculiar interaction of the personal with the historical in these works finds added significance in Exit Ghost , the final installment in the Zuckerman collection of novels. I also discuss how Roth explores the relationships that exist between particular matters of narrative style, ethnic identity, and broader national history in The Plot against America. Although lacking the interesting narrative persona of Zuckerman, this novel rests interestingly alongside the American trilogy and Exit Ghost in so much as it adds to the overlapping historical and aesthetic issues that those texts examine.

Antonio Y. Vazquez-Arroyo: Agonized liberalism / Radical Philosophy

By way of a historicist reading, I look at how the novels under consideration examine certain upheavals that have taken place within the American political and cultural landscape since the New Deal, and how such changes have brought into doubt important concepts of cultural commonality and inclusive citizenry that had once glued the Rooseveltian liberal ideal together. Each chapter in this study provides a contextual framework for reading these texts through the lens of the numerous conflicts and transformations that have redefined American liberalism over the decades, leaving it progressively weakened as a convincing form of popular civic discourse.

My discussion illustrates how the later Zuckerman books and The Plot against America concern themselves with questions of class, ethnicity, race, gender, and literary culture, all of which have been key components in the changing intellectual and political makeup of American liberal ideology since the s. Before elaborating further upon this broader historical context, I wish to emphasize how my approach to reading Roth is equally mindful of his keen interest in concepts of literary aestheticism.

Bush in These texts explore various moments of crisis that have challenged the liberal brand of American political idealism that emerged to prominence under Roosevelt, and which came to dominate national life during the Depression, World War Two, and throughout the early post-war period prior to the late sixties. This particularly modern form of liberal politics derived its influence from certain progressive beliefs that had been gaining prominence in America in the early part of the twentieth century, and which helped to distinguish it in many areas from laissez-faire ideas about the capitalist market and competitive individualism that had motivated nineteenth century liberalism.

According to such thinking, the wide collection of groups and individuals that constituted the American citizenry could no longer be plausibly conceived of as exclusively independent social agents whose lives were largely separate from each other. Instead, by considering how individual fortunes were far more inter-dependent than had been previously assumed, progressives argued that the material plight and social standing of all citizens were bound to the broader fate of the nation as a whole.

The tenets of progressive belief that emerged powerfully into the center of American political discourse in the early twentieth century emphasized a need to re-think the fundamental bases of democratic capitalism so as to give greater recognition to the intricate historical relations that shape the lives of citizens and connect the many constituent parts of society into a wider community of shared interests.

The Fall of Conservatism

John Dewey, for example, articulated new ways of understanding how the private life of the individual in America was heavily circumstanced by its structural position within a society marked by rapidly growing market forces and increasingly uneven distributions of power. By focusing intently on how the individual is greatly conditioned by external factors, particularly in terms of his life as an economic subject, Dewey contributed significantly to a broader discussion among political intellectuals and activists of the period about the need to re-think classic ideas that related freedom and equality in American democracy to transcendent notions of the self as wholly independent of greater social forces.

For Dewey, this involved an outmoded and redundant view of liberty that placed the individual as neither beholden nor responsible in any strict manner to the ambitions and needs of his fellow citizens. Herbert Croly joined Dewey in outlining the anachronistic value of applying 19 th century ideals of unfettered individualism to the socio-economic environment of the early twentieth century. In order to redress the sclerotic growth of magnate wealth and gross economic inequalities within America, people like Croly and Dewey argued for a need to temper free-market individualism in order to improve the collective welfare of the nation.

In contrast to the Marxist critique of bourgeois individualism, leading progressive intellectuals did not call for an outright supplanting of individual liberty in the name of the greater common good. As such, Dewey and others sought to establish ways in which to forge a greater sense of partnership among interlocking civic ties in order to balance the many interest groups that competed for influence and power in the nation. The new style of liberalism that came to the fore in America during the New Deal would ultimately face numerous crises of legitimacy as a result of its many growing critics on both the Left and the Right, particularly from the late s onward.

Yet despite its beleaguering trials and waning influence over recent decades, the progressive liberal politics that emerged in the Roosevelt years, with its welcoming appeal to notions of fairness and tolerance, did hold powerful sway over mainstream national life for a significant portion of the twentieth century. The New Deal and its later incarnations within American liberalism found particular impetus by giving vocal expression to decidedly egalitarian ideas of a nation that was widening the parameters of collective co-operation and shared prosperity among its citizens.

Wendy Wall explores the widespread appeal to popular sentiments made by this liberal vision of a community of national togetherness. The underlining belief of modern liberalism in the possibility of successfully steering economic, social, and cultural forces toward reasonably sought after ends was thus predicated upon certain assumptions about the common aspirations and values that existed among the American masses.


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As I have indicated, this progressive tradition in American politics has always been distinctly anti-utopian in both content and sentiment, and has thus set itself in sharp contrast to the revolutionary fervor of many on the Left. The progressive outlook that prefigured and came to shape modern American liberalism thus stressed a general belief in the ability of human beings to manage their own affairs according to nominally laid plans and goals, while maintaining a soberly realistic outlook in its emphasis on goals and expectations. At the same time, however, liberal experiments in social change from the New Deal onwards were accompanied by surcharges of idealism and emotional excitement in so much as they became placed within a larger framework of American providential design.

The liberal dominance of the midcentury decades was characterized by a level of national optimism, as engendered by a faith that American history, particularly as it has been won over by progressive principles, contains the germ of a brighter future that is increasingly unfolding over time.

This grandiose vision of an ideal historical blueprint — latent within the foundations of American democracy and made slowly manifest by the liberal progressive search for an improvement of social conditions — was, as I have already stressed, counterbalanced by important notions of pragmatism and compromise that undergirded the values of New Deal liberalism and its later adaptations. As such, the founding tenets of modern liberalism expressed the need for a healthy balance between an overweening vision of social justice, on the one hand, and a determination to maintain a vital sense of individual freedom and democratic heterogeneity on the other by avoiding the dogma of deterministic notions of progress, particularly as espoused by hardened leftists.

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The emergence of these powerful strands of cultural politics and economic thought since the sixties have considerably tested the boundaries of the liberal social contract that arose to prominence during the New Deal by exposing the weaknesses of the Rooseveltian vision of a mass community of diverse, yet relatively balanced interests. The novels selected for the present study tend to look back on the mid-century decades as forming a celebratory era of nationhood, during which the collective aspirations of the American people were ignited by what seemed like a rapid expansion of democratic possibilities for improving the well-being of ordinary citizens.

As a result, the novels that I have chosen to discuss — particularly in the cases of I Married a Communist , American Pastoral , and The Plot against America — tend to offer affectionate backward glances toward what seems like a golden epoch, during which experiences of youthful simplicity in the life of the narrator was intensified by a powerful sense of the nation as brimming with expectation and self-confidence.

While the now aged and world-weary characters of Zuckerman and Philip are still somewhat attracted to the ordered notions of progress that once seemed to bound the America of their respective childhoods together, they are acutely aware that such a structured vision of life was decidedly fanciful and ultimately untenable in light of the greater contingencies of existence. For both narrator-protagonists, significantly, the de-idealization of their early sense of excitement over the anticipated promises of life in America is tied up with a personal history of departure away from the protected life-worlds of their respective childhoods, marking, in turn, a movement towards the painful, yet necessary acquirement of knowledge and loss that defines their adult lives.

Roth explores this postlapsarian leitmotif in the later novels by outlining how a once dominant vision of the nation as steadily advancing towards a greater state of overall improvement and mass democratic inclusion has given way to a more fractious and disorderly experience of life in America. In a self-interview that he conducted following the publication of The Great American Novel , Roth provides us with an early insight into how this disintegrating experience has informed his writing.

In this manner, Roth explores beneath consensual notions of history as fully consolidated past and optimistically forecasted future by re-discovering within historical experience the same level of unpredictability that hallmarks contemporaneous life. Indeed, the later novels that I am discussing make pointed references to how the quixotic task of providing some shapely understanding to the maelstrom of historical life is best undertaken by literary figures like Zuckerman, whose roaming imagination does not tend towards simple forms of convergence and unity.

By contrast, the novels under study in this book openly admit to the fact that, like the individual subject whose quest to author his own future is radically undercut by the chaos of historical events, the novelist has to contend with the ways in which the disorderliness of history outstrips our traditional modes of understanding and thus makes pale our efforts to shape it into some cohesive pattern. Historical experience is indeed somewhat indeterminate — and thus undetermined — for Roth in so far as it serves to disassemble our inherited frameworks of knowledge and entrenched systems of belief.

According to this view of things, the individual self and its historical context are open to exciting forms of imaginative re-interpretation that outstrip pre-fixed notions of social identity. Roth draws upon mid-century progressive ideas about national history as a marshaled advance into a brighter future as suitable discursive vehicles for presenting characters that seek to shape their own destinies by escaping from restrictive notions of the past as the overcrowded site of personal and social origins.

Complex issues of race, ethnicity, gender and class intrude into the drama of these novels in the form of an unexpected return of repressed historical experiences that have been all too easily forgotten by characters who have sought to re-imagine the limits of their lives by escaping their freighted sense of familial and social origins. This experience of history as an inescapable burden that continues to overshadow the life of the individual has added significance in terms of questions of authorial autonomy in the later Roth works.

Although the trauma belatedly enters into the life of the traumatized subject through a long series of unbidden and surprising instances of recall, the full horror of the original event can never be absorbed within the limits of consciousness.