Incremental Realism
Postwar American Fiction, Happiness, and Welfare-State Liberalism
Mary Esteve



The Symbolic Economy of Postwar American Happiness

In 1969, a decade after the appearance of his breakout novella Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth revisited one of this text’s central themes: the status and value of the public library. He published an editorial in the New York Times extolling the virtues of that institution—specifically, Newark’s—and excoriated the Newark City Council’s vote to shut it down for budgetary reasons. He heaped scorn on the council for depriving the city’s “mostly black” residents of the profound satisfaction he had experienced as a boy of modest means in the 1940s of accessing “any book [he] wanted” from the stacks “held in common for the common good.” The public library, Roth explained, was more than a repository of desirable objects for bookish kids. It was an “exacting haven” that built “trust . . . in both oneself and in systems,” thereby offering its patrons multiple “satisfactions.” It did not “count for nothing to carry a library card in one’s pocket; to pay a fine; to sit in a strange place, beyond the reach of parent and school, and read whatever one chose, in anonymity and peace; finally, to carry home across the city and even into bed at night a book with a local lineage of its own, a family tree of Newark readers to which one’s name had now been added.” A performative exercise in “municipal citizenship,” this boyhood engagement with the library—with its store of common goods and its institutional procedures—illustrates what midcentury liberal activists understood to be the operative purpose of the welfare state.1 In a socioeconomic system marked by increasing interdependence, the welfare state was supposed to contribute to the flourishing individuality and autonomy of persons, particularly those disadvantaged by poverty or meager opportunity.

Roth’s tribute to the public library and its modes of “satisfaction” goes far to confirm what the midcentury liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith suggested postwar Americans sorely needed, namely, “symbols of happiness” that could draw attention to the moral as well as the material value of public investment.2 In The Affluent Society (1958) he advanced a “theory of social balance” in which he pressed for the expansion of all manner of public services—the improvement of brick-and-mortar institutions such as schools and hospitals, the construction of housing for low-income Americans, the clearance of rural and urban slums, the establishment of routine municipal services like trash collection, and so forth. Direct public action, he argued, would do much to improve Americans’ quality of life. It would counterbalance the American economy’s overemphasis on the private sector’s production of consumer goods and its obsession with efficiency at the expense of individual and social well-being. It was the absence of trash collection, for instance, that “forced the use of home incinerators” in Los Angeles, leading to atrocious levels of air pollution (AS 256). Moreover, in an era of relative indifference to wealth and income inequality, the wide distribution of public goods and services would especially benefit those stricken by poverty—that “small and also inarticulate minority” largely “forgotten” even by most liberals, let alone by conservatives (328).3 In comparison to monetary income transfers, Galbraith’s propositions amounted to “less direct but, conceivably, almost equally effective means” of redistribution (330); indeed, to his mind, they offered better chances of breaking the cycle of “self-perpetuating” poverty of dysfunctional individuals, families, and geographical regions (329).

The moral imperative framing these practical schemes of incremental progress reflected the activist strain of postwar liberalism, in which the aim was to “protect and advance basic social justice” (AS 266) and to contribute to everyone’s “chance for dignity, individuality, and full development of personality” (288). Galbraith thus exemplified the sort of midcentury liberal who saw a need to move beyond what he called the “conventional wisdom” of viewing the welfare state as comprising a matrix of government agencies that merely “softened and civilized capitalism” (15). The welfare state needed to become more active in improving American lives, especially those of the polity’s least advantaged members. He brushed off claims such as Friedrich A. Hayek’s that government expansion would put the country on the road to totalitarianism, that the “paternalistic welfare state” would become hardly distinguishable from “full-fledged socialism.”4 Galbraith countered, “That [cities’] residents should have a nontoxic supply of air suggests no revolutionary dalliance with socialism” (252). Similarly, promoting institutions that advanced equal opportunity and plans that reduced poverty need not subscribe to the socialist ideal of a “community,” to borrow political scientist J. Donald Moon’s description, “in which there would be a strong coincidence of individual destiny and communal norms.”5 The whole point of privileging equal opportunity over equal outcomes was to protect and enlarge persons’ individual capacities, or, as Roth put it, to enable trust in oneself as well as in the ordinary experience of systems.

But no less important than the pushback against libertarian ideologues who raised the specter of totalitarianism, Galbraith’s call for new forms of happiness struck at the heart of utilitarian ideology, whether conservative or liberal, in which the focus on the greatest happiness for the greatest number often ignored—indeed, could justify ignoring—the least advantaged members of society. He faulted both contemporary and historical versions of this ideology. On the one hand, a lingering Keynesian imperative to stimulate consumer demand distorted productivity demands at midcentury (AS 188–90); on the other hand, ever since the “Benthamite test of public policy was ‘what serves the greatest happiness of the greatest number,’ and happiness was more or less implicitly identified with productivity,” modern society had misdirected its economic and ethical energies (288–89). The dismal irony of “private opulence and public squalor,” he implied, was practically destined to become the plight of postwar American affluence (257).

Although the mixed economy at midcentury presented occasions for sporadic outrage for Roth and slow-burning disappointment for Galbraith, both writers registered the potential for postwar liberal activists to envision viable alternatives to status quo liberalism and entrenched conservatism. This book offers a revisionist literary and cultural history of progressive liberals’ sense of the welfare state’s chronic vulnerability and the efforts undertaken by literary realists, public intellectuals, and policy activists to advance the value of public institutions and the claims of socioeconomic justice. Midcentury literary realism contributed significantly to this project. Numerous writers—Philip Roth, Gwendolyn Brooks, Patricia Highsmith, Mary McCarthy, Paula Fox, and Peter Taylor—carved out spaces of representation in which welfare-state “symbols of happiness” circulated, usually in unobtrusive but nevertheless visible and appreciable ways. These writers thus mobilized a trope that was already quite familiar to Americans—the pursuit of happiness—for the promotion both of welfare-state liberalism and, as we’ll see, of a small-canvas aesthetics of moderation—what Lionel Trilling, with reference to William Dean Howells, called “dealings with the ordinary” rather than with the “rare and strange.”6 If they risked writing what Herbert Marcuse sneeringly dubbed “good-will” literature, they also possessed the temerity to affirm crucial locations and objects of welfare-state value: not only the public library, which was easy to love, but also more troublesome things such as the United Nations (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Chicago’s mixed economy, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, Blue Cross health insurance, Medicaid, and the university.7

But that’s only half the story. In addition to embracing specific objects and locations of welfare-state happiness, these writers developed narrative modes that made justifiable the claims of disadvantaged Americans on the nation-state. To stay with the example of Roth (whose early fiction is the focus of chapter 1), in Goodbye, Columbus, he guides the reader not only toward endorsing the protagonist’s ultimate satisfaction in returning to his humdrum job at the Newark Public Library after an ugly breakup with his affluent girlfriend but also toward an endorsement of the narrative’s cumulative moral logic. Its final scene of emotional satisfaction turns out to be bound up with earlier episodes in which the protagonist’s workplace conduct reveals the importance of the public library to the well-being and personal dignity of a disadvantaged black boy. This narrative logic of justification is a central feature of a genre of postwar fiction that I call incremental realism. Drawing on the idea of incrementalism that informed midcentury decision-making theory (discussed in chapter 2), I suggest that this literary genre creates a symbolic economy in which referential figures of liberal activism and welfare-state happiness circulate, albeit inconspicuously and in a minor key. Practitioners of incremental realism, as we’ll see in each chapter, tend to employ narrative forms of measured analogy as well as steady, linear plot progression (as opposed to extravagant metaphor and sequential confusion); they gravitate toward characters and narrators exemplifying liberal subjectivity and mobilize tropes of happiness (as opposed to vehement emotions such as ecstasy and bliss) to stage the justification of a redistributive institution or program. With happiness as its emblem of committed but temperate activism, the incrementalist style gestures toward the near, possible future in which equitable wealth redistribution, expansion of public infrastructure, and individual flourishing function as operative ideals. Situating tropes of happiness in dialectical relation to liberalism’s formal yet pragmatic horizon of redistributive justice, incremental realism tilts the postwar idea of the nation-state toward practical ambitions related to its citizens’ flourishing and away from a Cold War national imaginary in which the pursuit of happiness, alongside life and liberty, looked like something worth going to war for.


The literary and cultural history of postwar welfare-state happiness is surprisingly entangled, its many knots resulting from the deeply ambiguous status of happiness, the vexed politics of liberalism, and the dominant preference for a literary aesthetics not of moderation and sociopolitical affirmation but of heightened intensity and alienation. These manifold issues receive attention throughout the ensuing chapters, but here I want to bring into focus some of their salient implications by examining in detail four publishing events—two in 1948 and two in 1971—related to happiness and the welfare state (these dates also serve loosely as this study’s temporal bookends). With regard to mainstream happiness discourse, 1948 is the year Life magazine published “A Life Round Table on The Pursuit of Happiness,” and 1971 is the year E. L. Doctorow published what may count as the most damning repudiation of the ideology informing the Life article: his novel, The Book of Daniel. In welfare-state discourse, 1948 is the year the UN issued the UDHR, and 1971 is the year John Rawls published arguably the most rigorous and expansive justification of the UDHR’s principles and values in his liberal manifesto, A Theory of Justice. At first glance, these textual artifacts seem to reveal the extent to which the two discourses of happiness and welfare-state liberalism were at cross purposes and practically unintelligible to each other, even where their political and affective vocabularies overlapped. Yet the juxtaposition of the Life article and Doctorow, on the one hand, and the UDHR and Rawls, on the other hand, should illuminate the moral, conceptual, and representational claims that liberal activism drew into its orbit. Instead of the rearguard “conventional wisdom” that Galbraith lampooned throughout The Affluent Society, such activism may be broadly understood, in keeping with the literary genre identified earlier, to issue from an incrementalist intelligence, that is, from a forward-looking sensibility keyed to the ethical and pragmatic tenets of welfare-state justice and to the affirmative mode of happiness exemplified by Roth’s tableau of library satisfaction.

I begin with Life magazine’s roundtable. As a genre of knowledge production, the roundtable was not as uncomplicated as its name suggests. It comprised preliminary discussion groups and three days of dialogue among nearly twenty invited participants, all of which was subsequently compressed into a published report with a byline. These formal elements turned out to be as central to the magazine article’s ideology of happiness as the content of the discussions. The author of the piece was the roundtable’s moderator, Russell W. Davenport, a liberal conservative who had been managing editor of Fortune in the 1930s, political advisor to the 1940 Republican presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie, and on staff at Life and Time after World War II. He had developed the roundtable “technique” for Fortune, touting it as a “democratic device” that created “balance” by drawing together men and women with “different views” for a weekend of discussion and debate.8 Participating in the forum were numerous academics (including left liberals Sidney Hook, Stuart Chase, and Erich Fromm), a few corporate and advertising executives, one union leader, one museum director, one Hollywood executive, a few religious leaders and magazine editors, one paralytic, one government official, and one Mother of the Year (Life 96). As a model of democratic pluralism, the group had predictable deficiencies—the absence of racial minorities, for instance, and a tilt toward corporate interests.9 But for the present analysis what is more notable is the way the group also served as a model of consensus. Davenport explains that his “task” as moderator is “to unify the conflicting views” and to find “agreement wherever possible” (96). Remarking again and again on the consensus achieved, he creates a narrative of the weekend’s production, after “exhausting intellectual struggle,” of “a set of agreements, for the most part unanimous,” regarding midcentury American pursuits of happiness (97).

“Consensus” was, as Richard Godden has put it, “the bedrock and horizon of liberal optimism”; as such it “blanket[ed] the fifties” and the ensuing decades.10 And yet, even among liberal optimists, there were distinct ways of construing consensus. Life’s construal, as we’ll see, differed significantly from the social-contract version that informed Rawls’s political philosophy. As reconstructed by Davenport, Life’s roundtable was of a piece with concerted postwar efforts of organizations such as the Advertising Council and the American Heritage Foundation to promote “the American way.” The historian Wendy Wall offers a concise summary of this project:

[It was] a wide-ranging and multifaceted effort by an array of influential elites in the immediate postwar years to recapture the sense of national unity and teamwork that had pervaded public discourse in the U.S. during World War II. Those engaged in this endeavor included social scientists who worried about threats to social cohesion posed by the “group mind”; intergroup activists who hoped to extend their wartime antiprejudice campaigns; business, advertising, and public relations executives determined to derail the rising power of labor and to halt or roll back the policies of the New Deal; and officials of the Truman administration who sought to unify Americans behind their emerging cold war policies.11

In 1945, the Advertising Council—the result of a postwar makeover of the War Advertising Council into a nonprofit, “public-service” foundation—solicited support from the editors of Time, Life, and Fortune.12 Davenport’s roundtable on the pursuit of happiness was clearly an instance of this support. Among its participants was Thomas D’Arcy Brophy, advertising executive and president of the American Heritage Foundation, whose concurrent pet project was the Freedom Train. This traveling exhibit of select American documents (such as Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, Washington’s copy of the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the American flag that was raised on Iwo Jima) toured the forty-eight states from late 1947 to early 1949. Wall describes the lengths to which Brophy and fellow promoters went to empty the exhibit of political controversy—playing up “freedom,” for instance, and back-benching “democracy”—so as to advance “a consensual vision of [the] ‘American Way.’13 The broad ambition of the American way was to instill cultural unity, religious and racial tolerance, demographic inclusion, and economic prosperity as the nation’s hallmarks.

In Life’s roundtable the narrative of consensus converges on the group’s arrival at a thick description of the meaning of Jefferson’s “Third Right”—a description so thick, in fact, that it becomes indistinguishable from a moral and cultural prescription of happiness. The main question at hand, Davenport submits, is not “the nature of happiness itself” but rather “the meaning and use of a political right” (Life 97, emphasis in original). And yet the participants frequently lapse into stipulating the conditions of happiness. Claims are made, for instance, that peace is “essential” to happiness (98), that happiness and painful self-sacrifice are compatible (98), that happiness can’t be intelligently pursued with the threat of atomic warfare looming (98), and that happiness “results from the full use of one’s faculties” (100), whereas unhappiness results from monotonous labor (98). When this sort of philosophical opining gives way to the putatively different question of the pursuit of happiness as a political right, the participants seem unable to switch analytical gears. Their elision of the distinction between existential and political propositions is most apparent in the way they accept as self-evident the truth of what they call “genuine happiness” (97), which they differentiate from the kind of happiness people report themselves in surveys as having experienced—for instance, in the survey that Beatrice Gould, editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal, brought to the roundtable in which 46 percent of Americans deemed themselves “very happy,” as opposed to 9 percent of French people (97). Dismissing such first-person evaluation, the roundtable participants agree with Erich Fromm that “a wide gulf [exists] between what people think they are and what they really are”; the participants thus construct an account of subjective happiness that privileges objective “facts,” determined from a third-person perspective, over personal “opinions” (97).

Much follows from these determinations. Understanding themselves as “thoroughly Jeffersonian,” everybody at the roundtable is in “fundamental agreement” that “the whole moral question—not only sacrifice, but duty, honor, generosity, courage, fairness, justice, and so forth—is inseparable from the question of happiness. The very idea of pursuing happiness with no reference to moral standards is self-defeating, not to say destructive. The good is implicit in the search for happiness; moral goals must be realized if happiness is to be achieved” (Life 98). The group downplays the political tenuousness of this logic of inseparability (which would reduce the political right that the Declaration of Independence determines inalienable to exclusively edifying pursuits and thus render the state protecting this right grossly paternalistic). To be sure, Davenport indicates that the group has embraced the results of a preliminary discussion group of Jefferson scholars who concluded that Jefferson substituted “the pursuit of happiness” for “property” because he wanted to broaden the scope of inalienable rights and that he understood “that the chief end of government is the happiness of the people” (97, emphasis in original). But despite Davenport’s initial assertion to the contrary, the roundtable turns out not to be terribly interested in the pursuit of happiness as a political right. Rather, more like the philosopher Aristotle than the revolutionary Jefferson, the roundtable participants are invested in erecting a moral epistemology to frame the conditions of happiness and thus to secure an alibi for issuing diagnoses of midcentury America. The predicative “facts” about happiness authorize the group’s overarching conclusion: “There is a failure in America to achieve genuine happiness” (97). The consensus leaders have spoken. Pointing to the nation’s high divorce rate and family disintegration, increasing rates of juvenile delinquency and crime, excessive drinking, and so forth (97), they have positioned themselves to dispense advice on how to improve America and achieve genuine happiness.

With everyone in agreement about the intrinsically moral nature of genuine happiness, the Life article concludes with a summary of the roundtable’s more specific “agreements [having] to do with the application of this right by those who cannot escape responsibility for its proper exercise” (Life 110). These agreements include, redundantly, not construing happiness as mere pleasure or self-indulgence as well as issuing social and economic directives: give workers more opportunity to participate “in [their] job[s] and in profits” (Life 110), encourage the patronage of art museums (110), revise Hollywood’s censorship policies so as to foster the production of morally serious movies (110, 113), curb the advertising industry’s “interfere[nce] with an intelligent pursuit of happiness,” and find in the “American democratic heritage . . . the best common ground on which to base the moral principles required for the intelligent pursuit of happiness” (113). In baking so much moral “intelligence” into the cake of acceptable pursuits of happiness, this roundtable’s dramatic conversion of democratic pluralism into monolithic consensus renders the pursuit of happiness not merely consonant with “the American way” but effectively inseparable from it.

.   .   .

By 1959, John Higham’s withering critique of the “cult” of “American consensus” made visible the dubiousness of the presumption that America was conflict-free in its ideological commitments and cultural values. His classic essay, “The Cult of ‘American Consensus’: Homogenizing Our History,” took specific aim at academic historians who had abandoned the progressive historiography of “clashing ideologies” and “jagged” processes of protest and reform for a historiography of epochal continuity, cultural placidity, and national unity.14 Singled out for bracing admonishment is Daniel Boorstin, whom Higham skewers for blithely contending that “American values had emerged from happy experience; here the ‘ought’ derived from the ‘is.’15 Giving the lie to consensus liberalism’s wish fulfillment, Higham’s dissent from mainstream consensus ideology challenged the Cold War fixation on national unity. His critique, however, took place in the relatively cordial sphere of academic exchange.

That is, Higham’s objections paled in comparison to the emergent counterculture’s radical dissent, its all-out repudiation of the liberal system that made the proposition of intellectual disagreement irrelevant. Doctorow’s Book of Daniel portrays this oppositional logic, detailing the conditions of the counterculture’s hardening over the next decade into the New Left’s reactionary disenchantment. A fictionalization of the Rosenberg family, the novel takes the perspective of the executed couple’s son Daniel Isaacson, who is a graduate student of history in the late 1960s at Columbia University. It opens and closes with scenes of Daniel in the library, where he works on an unconventional dissertation—the manuscript that becomes The Book of Daniel. A kind of grotesque parody of Roth’s boyhood expeditions to the library for conditioning in citizenship, Daniel’s time in the library indexes the making of a sadistic, aggrieved, alienated anticitizen. Researching and writing there, pondering the personal and political implications of the execution of his parents, he develops a historiography of national accursedness and an indictment of the nation-state’s biopolitics. His deeply personal connection to the execution of spies provides the alibi for this historiography. Rather than understanding the episode in the disappointed manner of, say, the historian John Patrick Diggins—that is, as an egregious juridical mistake in a series of Cold War events that an anti–New Deal, right-wing conspiracy theorist like Joseph McCarthy could take advantage of—Daniel internalizes the execution, in effect, as a symptom of the American way.16 At the outset of his book, Daniel envisions a parallel between himself and his biblical namesake, who, he notes, may have “survive[d] three reigns” of imperious kings “but at considerable personal cost. Toward the end his insights become more diffuse, apocalyptic, hysterical.”17 Speaking apocalyptic hysteria to consensus power is a more analytical affair for the studious Daniel than it is for his counter-cultural bedfellow, the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, but his book is no less suspicious of liberalism’s foundational values and principles and, correspondingly, no less indebted to visionary tropes of abnegation than Howl (1956) is.

Central to the narrative’s exultant fatalism is a looming figure of absent happiness. Sandwiched between childhood memories of visiting his parents in prison before their execution and thoughts about his recent participation in the 1968 march on the Pentagon, a thirteenth zodiac sign, Starfish, becomes the object of Daniel’s ponderous attention. Ostensibly erased long ago by “the famous Egyptian adjustment of the Chaldean calendar, in 4000 B. C.,” it was once “considered one of the most beneficial of signs” because it “suggested serenity and harmony with the universe, and therefore great happiness” (BD 305). Daniel goes on to surmise that modern astrologers avoid reference to the sign “because modern man can conceive of nothing more frightening than the self-sufficiency of being of the beautiful Starfish: he mistakes it for death” (306). Once conjoining “[b]elief . . . with intellect, language with truth, and life with justice,” this sign of beatific virtue has no place in the modern firmament (305). The implications of Daniel’s celestial ideal are twofold: it signals the debased condition of consensus liberalism’s idea of genuine happiness, while the zodiac sign’s total erasure signals the condition of abjection that the modern nation-state induces in its citizens. This is the New Left story: true happiness has been rendered otherworldly and unavailable by modern political regimes. As we’ll see shortly, its only chance of revival is through the psychic limit-experience that nowadays travels under the name of jouissance.

Already gesturing toward the sacred in his summons of the zodiac sign, Daniel connects this figure of exiled happiness more closely with what his real-world counterpart Giorgio Agamben designates homo sacer when Daniel aligns the Starfish with his suicidal sister. Beholding the unresponsive Susan in a sanitarium, Daniel explores her “starfish” abjection: “Today she practices the silence of the starfish. There are few silences deeper than the silence of the starfish. There are not many degrees of life lower before there is no life” (BD 253).18 Witness to this scene of fatal desperation, Daniel notably also likens her to a Holocaust refugee: “She writhes gently on her back, swaying like something underwater, staring intently with her DP eyes at the ceiling” (252). Reduced to what Agamben calls “bare life” by the childhood trauma of losing her parents, Susan embodies the nation-state’s biopolitical capture of and sanctioned violence against humanity. Bare life indicates the condition of human beings that the modern nation-state has managed, in its totalitarian mission creep, to command and suppress at once. Modern or “Western politics first constitutes itself through an exclusion (which is simultaneously an inclusion) of bare life.”19 The bare life is lived, according to Agamben, by the “homo sacer (the sacred man), who may be killed and yet not sacrificed,” and this torturous truth becomes “the hidden foundation on which the entire [modern democratic] political system rest[s].”20

Moreover, constituting as it does the “specific aporia” of modern democracies, this biopolitical imperative “wants to put the freedom and happiness of men into play in the very place—‘bare life’—that marked their subjection.”21 The liberal state’s ordinary protections and pursuits (“freedom and happiness”) are thus condemned as sites of duplicity. If such intricate masking is baked into modern political logic, the polity is also bound to expose its duplicity during moments of crisis. For instance, the abandoned refugee—exiled from one nation-state and refused protection by another—becomes the stateless exception that not only gives the lie to the universal verities of inalienable human rights (of treating all human life as sacrosanct) but also reveals the nation-state’s self-crippling destiny. Agamben describes a long history of the contradictions inhering in the idea of the sacred—its religious, anthropological, and, finally, political ways of identifying the life that, though imbued with paramount worth, can be killed with impunity. He concludes that the sacred refugee is “nothing less than a limit-concept that radically calls into question the fundamental categories of the nation-state.” As Daniel’s Susan morphs into a Holocaust refugee, Agamben’s refugee morphs into Susan’s hospitalized counterpart, Karen Quinlan, whose body has been handed over to medical procedures and legal decisions that seek to shape “a life that coincides with death.”22 As befits such biopolitical destitution, in Doctorow’s novel Susan becomes a martyr without an intelligible cause: the progressive radicalism of her parents is obsolete by the 1960s and the countercultural radicals she petitions want nothing more from her attachment to her parents’ cause than a spectatorial poster that, for them, marks the parents’ quaint celebrity in days of red-baiting yore.

We are a long way from Higham’s scene of disagreement; the point of New Left historiography is not to disagree (and persuade) but to redescribe. According to this redescription, liberal democracies have led us hopelessly into what Agamben calls “unprecedented biopolitical catastrophe.”23 Just as homo sacer is cursed, so too, Agamben and Daniel both imply, is the modern polity.24 Fleshing out his history of accursed ruination, Daniel finds confirmation in Edgar Allan Poe. Daniel sees him as a figure who exceeded the run-of-the-mill traitors of the incipient nation-state (that is, Benedict Arnold, General Charles Lee, Aaron Burr, Robert E. Lee, and Mormons, among others). Poe embodies “the archetype traitor, the master subversive . . . who wore a hole into the parchment [of the US Constitution] and let the darkness pour through” (BD 218). Poe’s “hellish” darkness, in Daniel’s projection of him, overturns antebellum America’s version of Life’s consensus happiness. He works “like the poisonous effulgence of combustion engines over Thrift and Virtue and Reason and Natural Law and the Rights of Man. . . . It’s Poe who ruined us, that scream from the smiling face of America” (218). From smile to scream: here, then, is a radical dissident’s discovery of a distant forbear who can corroborate his late 1960s project of creating a narrative that turns in on itself.

This involution reaches maximum expression when Daniel deems “monstrous” the proposition of putting down words in “sequence”; he can hardly fathom that a “monstrous reader . . . goes on from one word to the next” just as the “monstrous writer . . . places one word after another” (BD 300). A conflation both of the “monstrous magician” whom the biblical Daniel displaces and of the biblical Daniel himself who can read the writing on the wall, here is a historian who is condemned both when he writes or interprets and when he does not (300). It may be impossible to be further away from the literary practices of incremental realism than this.25 Indeed, Doctorow intimates that his novel—or at least Daniel’s book—operates under the totalizing sign of the curse. A letter from Susan strikes Daniel as explicitly taking this “literary form” (101). As Daniel sees it, “[t]his curse” has “two stages.” One is the prophecy of ultimate self-destruction whereby Daniel will disappear “into his own asshole” (101). The other is an attempted purgation through writing: in Susan’s repudiating declaration, “You no longer exist,” Daniel “is ‘written’ out of mind” (101). Daniel observes, however, that he might be less easy to disappear than Susan expects and that she might be subject to her own verbal violence. Doctorow writes, “There is some evidence that she was driven finally to eradicate him from her consciousness by the radical means of eradicating her consciousness” (101). In these losing propositions—either Daniel is destroyed or Susan is, either he writes monstrosity or he is silenced—the prospect of happiness, whether celestial or political, has long disappeared. The sign of the beneficent Starfish rises over the book only so that its figuration of happiness can be unwritten, blotted “out of mind.”26 It is condemned to the status of absent reminder of America’s accursed share.

There is one crucial exception, however. There is Artie Sternlicht, who embodies the revolutionary extremist wing of the New Left. Starfish returns from bare life to violent life in the form of “starlight” joy. As though filling the vacuum created by the disappearance of the zodiac sign, the archprovocateur Sternlicht joins Poe in looming over Daniel’s book. Daniel describes his biblical namesake as the “Beacon of Faith in a Time of Persecution” (BD 14), but in his own time it is Artie’s light as much as anything that guides Daniel, fueled by family history, down the mountain of antipathy and onto the plains of radical dissent from all things liberal. The entire system of the nation-state, Sternlicht declares, is “guilty” (186). And it is a kind of guilt for which there is no possibility of exculpation. By this logic, the efforts on the part of Robert Lewin, Daniel’s adoptive father and left-liberal lawyer, to have the Isaacson parents’ verdict reversed is worthless; it amounts to an act of “good will” that merely exhibits “complicity” with the Cold War system. Daniel can’t help but conclude that “[i]t is complicity in the system to be appalled with the moral structure of the system” (276). There’s “no substantial difference” between being appalled by a government action—or viewing it with “shame”—and being a government stooge (277). In the face of the country’s monstrous guilt, of which the Rosenberg/Isaacson execution is merely a symptom, such fine distinctions melt into air. The historian Doug Rossinow has noted that New Left antipathy toward midcentury liberalism engendered a New Left historiography that was blind to the compatibilities of Old Left radicalism and liberal reformism.27 In The Book of Daniel, the New Left exemplars, Daniel and Sternlicht, insist on the opposite but to the same effect: Popular Front radicals were too much like liberals. As “revolutionary heirs of Jefferson and Lincoln and Andrew Jackson and Tom Paine” (237) who “wore ties[,] . . . held down jobs[,] . . . put people up for President,” and so forth, the Popular Front folks were deep “into the system” (185). Committed as they were “to the world of American fair play and justice” (26), they too must be delegitimized.

A key aspect of this delegitimization entails expressing a radical form of happiness, one that bears striking resemblance to what poststructuralist theory often construes as jouissance. The occasion for this limit-experience in The Book of Daniel is a magazine writer’s visit to Sternlicht’s pad in the East Village, where Sternlicht, his girlfriend, and friends are hanging out. During the interview, for a meteoric instant, “[e]veryone gets happy” from blurting out “in unison” the title of the wall collage that Sternlicht’s girlfriend has created: “EVERYTHING THAT CAME BEFORE IS ALL THE SAME!” (BD 168). Critics have noted that the collage itself, a massive palimpsestic jumble of images mostly from American popular and political culture, performs a postmodern “erasure of history” and a “vocal deracination.”28 The collage’s title and the collective enunciation of it also betoken the urge toward ecstatic dissolution that jouissance signifies. As gestures of detachment—from history’s referents and from personal identity—the title and collective utterance reach toward a conceptual extremism and radical consensus in which the boundaries marking representational and subjective coherence give way to ontological alterity. This version of otherness, insofar as it can be tapped, offers itself as the revolutionary alternative to liberal autonomy. Even the interviewer gets in on the game. She thinks, “This piece is writing itself,” thereby echoing Roland Barthes’s version of jouissance, wherein pleasures of the text issue from the undoing of writerly coherence. As she and the New Left claimants get radically happy, they distinguish themselves from the one remaining member of the Isaacsons’ Old Left circle, Selig Mindish, the sellout or devious strategist, whose first name means “happy” or “blessed” in German and who for his pains winds up senile and condemned to the mindless (or mindish) pleasures of Disneyland. He becomes yet another example of the moribund Starfish.

If Doctorow is the novelist who, as Fredric Jameson’s oft-cited acclamation has it, stands as “the epic poet of the disappearance of the American radical past, of the suppression of older traditions and moments of the American radical tradition,” what his Book of Daniel reveals in retrospect is that 1960s radicalism doesn’t so much disappear as find new platforms from which to operate.29 Broadly speaking, to be sure, the revolutionary left “will lose its momentum as the war winds down and the draft ceases.”30 But the rise of poststructuralism and critical theory will provide radical thought ample opportunity to articulate antiliberal critiques on paper and in the seminar room—critiques that often envisage the constitutive undoing, the self-ruination, of systems. Daniel is poised to become a New Left academic historian even before the war winds down. He will invest in a historiography that recognizes no forebears in the Old Left, that revels in the undoing of liberal predicates, and that more or less abandons the realm of welfare-state justice and its attendant idea of happiness.

.   .   .

With the pervasiveness of consensus liberalism, the ongoing pressures of entrenched conservatism, and the increasing hostility of countercultural backlash, the activist wing of the liberal apparatus in the early postwar decades faced difficult odds in its efforts to promulgate a welfare-state vision. It never the less did seek suitable venues to clarify and formalize its moral and anthropological conditions of possibility.31 Genres such as a proclamation from a newly formed international body, like the UN, and a treatise of political philosophy, like Rawls’s Theory of Justice, may initially have had purchase only for like-minded liberals who were already prepared to build templates for a more equitable future. But the act of elaborating in minimalist form the grounding moral claims and basic social values of the signatory member states, as in the case of the UN’s UDHR, and the act of elaborating most of those principles into a systematic justification of redistributive justice, as in the case of Rawls’s work, may be understood as aiming over the long term to persuade bureaucratic, governmental, civic, and academic agencies of the merits of welfare-state liberalism. In the American scene, progressive liberals could offer alternatives not only to Cold War illusions of national consensus but also to countercultural visions of radical dissent.32

Both the UN and Rawls depended heavily on the legitimacy of Enlightenment ideas of a social contract to anchor their aspirational projects. I turn first to the UN’s UDHR. As already indicated in the earlier discussion of Agamben’s thought, there is a tendency among poststructuralist critics to dwell on the contradictions they descry at the core of human rights discourse. They often draw on Hannah Arendt’s renowned account in The Origins of Totalitarianism of the refugee’s condition of statelessness, which, contrary to the very idea of the universality of human rights, renders the person bereft of basic legal protections. The editors Ian Balfour and Eduardo Cadava, in their 2004 introduction to a special issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly on the status of human rights discourses, go so far as to stage this contradiction as a “crisis” with portentous implications: “The crisis within human rights is that, with the appearance of the refugee, the presumably sacred and inalienable rights of man are shown to be entirely alienable, to lack any protection or reality at the very moment in which they can no longer be understood as rights belonging to citizens of a state, or to members of a particular community.”33 More than exhibiting concern about the latest wave of specific refugees who might be suffering the pains and indignities of having little palpable security, Balfour and Cadava seem to find it logically unacceptable that, despite the universalist presumptions built into human rights claims, historically only nation-states have provided the political structure and enforcement power to bolster them. They write, “This reversal of the priority of human rights over political rights belies the contradictions at the heart of the rights of man: if they are supposed to be inalienable and universal, free from the determinations of any particular nation or state, they are also dependent on the sovereignty of that nation or state for their definition, protection, and realization.”34 Since they deem contradictory the situation in which moral (or metamoral) claims and political (or legal) claims derive from different institutional and historical sources, they set the diagnostic stage as one might imagine Daniel Isaacson Lewin setting it: as rife with complicity and guilt. Hence, their concluding remarks take up modernity’s cursed destiny, self-consciously echoing Walter Benjamin: “There is no document of humanitarianism that is not at the same time a document of inhumanity, inequality, and violence, and . . . the human rights activist should therefore dissociate himself or herself from it as much as possible.”35 To which a liberal might respond that the only human rights activists in need of such dissociation are those who deem flawed actualizations of ideal aspirations to delegitimize the aspirational project altogether or who apply a deconstructive logic to the metaphysical abstractions on which human rights are putatively predicated, such that these abstractions are constitutively undone by an underlying materiality.

By contrast, those working with the UN to draft the UDHR understood that conceptual abstractions need not be metaphysical; that what must drive the agenda was the consensus of member states on moral values, not truths; and that barbarous acts wrought by humans were not likely to come to a halt simply by declarative will. The UDHR clearly registers a sense of interdependency (rather than contradiction) between the UN’s universalist moral “aspiration” and sovereign nations’ political responsibility and legal authority to implement “progressive measures.”36 Although the UN would become a central component of the international apparatus authorizing sanctions and military actions between and among nation-states, what is remarkable about the UDHR is its focus on what each nation-state owes its “peoples” as individual humans. Many of the rights delineated in the thirty articles speak, of course, to protection from the state itself, articulating what are commonly understood as negative liberties—the right to life, liberty, and security (Article 3); the right not to be enslaved (Article 4); the right to privacy (Article 12); the right to marry, to practice religion, to free speech (Articles 16, 18, 19), and so forth. But in addition to negative liberties, the UDHR identifies numerous rights that speak to people’s substantive welfare and that, in an international regime of sovereign nation-states, only a modern welfare state can address: the right to work (Article 23), the right to leisure (Article 24), the right to education, the right to participate in cultural activity (Articles 26, 27), and so forth. Arguably most crucial in this vein are two broader considerations of people’s general well-being and, in effect, their existential dignity. Regarding well-being, Article 25 stipulates a substantial package of social-security provision: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” This article reiterates and elaborates on the stipulations of Article 22, in which the language of existential dignity is foregrounded: “Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to the realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality” (emphasis added). This italicized phrase, repeated in slightly different form in Article 29, may be said to articulate and legitimate, for the UN’s consenting member nation-states, the general idea of the very purpose of these nation-states’ existence, namely, not only to protect their peoples from various harms and indignities but also to contribute actively to their flourishing over time.

At the dawn of the postwar era, then, the most expansive international institution ever formed staged a kind of enormous roundtable convention in which moral consensus was achieved around the aspirational fundamentals of a welfare-state system, while paternalist moralizing about the specific contents of a good life was largely averted. (Nobody complained about divorce rates or excessive drinking, for instance.) Indeed, Samuel Moyn has argued that the UDHR was much more important for its articulation of a “national welfarist consensus” than for its advancement of international human rights. To corroborate his claim, he refers to the UDHR’s denunciation in the United States as a “pink paper.”37 Less direct but more affirmative corroboration would appear in the liberal activist and academic Harry K. Girvetz’s book The Evolution of Liberalism (1950/1963). In a chapter titled “The Welfare of Nations,” he insisted that the “[s]tandard of living” in the United States be understood not as a bare minimum of subsistence but as gauged by what people think “they can have and ought to have as a matter of right and justice.”38 With its second edition blurbed on the front cover by Hubert H. Humphrey and introduced by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the book testifies to the existence of postwar relays between the left-liberal American political apparatus and UDHR language and ideals.39

.   .   .

The specific language of happiness is absent from the UDHR, but this absence dovetails with an important aspect of the argument presented in this study: the more the language of personality development—or what political philosophers often call flourishing—could become an adequate synonym for happiness, the more happiness itself could claim legitimacy as a political value. (An early UN offshoot, the World Health Organization, embraced all too gladly the language of happiness in its 1948 constitution, which, as we’ll see in chapter 4, rendered it susceptible to science fiction parody.) In A Theory of Justice, Rawls explicitly makes the semantic link between happiness and flourishing when he presents arguments for building his theory’s principles of justice as fairness into institutional schemes and thus into the life schemes of persons and their varying conceptions of the good. It is important to note, however, that by the late 1950s Rawls was already engaged in conceptualizing a dialectical relation between the pursuit of happiness, broadly construed, and liberalism’s formal yet practical sense of redistributive justice.

In this early stage of his thought, his arguments were directed not at what critics of human rights discourse often worry about, namely, that the advocacy of liberal individualism threatens to eclipse collective values.40 Rawls’s concern was instead with dominant strains of social-welfare theory, which did not worry enough about the individual as a person deserving dignity and socioeconomic justice. As Amartya Sen has recently observed, the 1950s were marked by dramatic turns in social-welfare analysis, largely brought about by Kenneth Arrow’s “birth of the modern discipline of social choice theory” and by John Rawls’s “pioneering” work on the related question of redistributive justice.41 At issue, among other things, was social-welfare theory’s reliance on the utilitarian principle of aggregating individual preference satisfaction for identifying and choosing optimal states of collective well-being. This theory not only ignored the effect of social choice on the least advantaged members of society but also excluded the relevance of objective assessments of wellbeing. It was both hyperindividualist (in that everybody’s personal happiness, pleasure, or preference satisfaction counted toward the aggregate) and conceptually indifferent to the plight of underprivileged individuals (in that the aim was for maximum aggregate happiness).

Rawls, for his part, drew instead on social-contract theory to introduce postulates of fairness, equity, and liberty that could override determinations of aggregate happiness. Such postulates constituted minimum conditions of socioeconomic justice. Without a ubiquitous sense of justice as fairness, Rawls argued, “the liability to pleasure and pain . . . might be taken as alone relevant, and the greatest happiness principle would be entirely natural.”42 But with a sense of justice as fairness in play, utilitarianism could be defeated. Indeed, the very assumption “that individual preferences have value as such” was questionable with regard to questions of justice. For Rawls, individual preferences were subordinate to a kind of omnilateral reciprocity, that is, to “the mutual recognition of principles [of justice] by participants in a common practice [whose] rules . . . define their several relations and give form to their claims on one another.”43 Whereas justice in classical or hedonic utilitarianism amounted to efficient executive decisions that maximized society’s happiness, justice in Rawls’s view was built into distributive axioms.44 Most important was the “maximin” (or “difference”) principle, whereby any Pareto optimum (that is, preference-driven distribution of efficiency) must also improve the conditions of the least advantaged; this precept excluded the utilitarian “justification of inequalities on the grounds that the disadvantages of those in one position are outweighed by the greater advantages of those in another position.”45

In Rawls’s theory, then, subjective preferences were subordinate but by no means excluded; they were equivalent to aspirations and desires or, more broadly, to personal conceptions of the good. They were distinct from and lower in priority than Rawls’s index of objectively measurable (and interpersonally comparable) primary goods: “liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, health and educated intelligence,” and, not least, “self-respect,” which denotes “a confident conviction of the sense of one’s own value, a firm assurance that what one does or plans to do is worth doing.”46 This commitment to the moral idea of an increasingly equalized distribution of primary goods dovetailed with a meatier proposition of happiness than utilitarianism’s psychological calculus of pleasure and pain. And yet it was quite minimalist compared to Life’s roundtable version of “genuine happiness.” Although pleasure and enjoyment were by no means irrelevant in this proposition, what mattered much more was a person’s pursuit of a good life extended over time. Happiness signified the “successful execution,” more or less, of a life plan, a “human flourishing” reflective of a “life fully worthy of choice.”47 “Someone is happy when his plans are going well, his more important aspirations being fulfilled, and he feels sure that his good fortune will endure,” Rawls wrote (TJ 409). This description, of course, was an imaginative ideal commensurate with welfare-state ideology, not a guarantee of the actually existing welfare state. If we allow for contingencies of luck and misfortune in areas such as personal aptitude, family circumstance, and current events, a fair share of primary goods should enable one to view one’s life as more or less in sync with welfare-state liberalism’s modality of happiness.

Informed, to be sure, by Aristotelian ideas of the good life, Rawls nevertheless understood this life plan loosely; it came with minimal expectations of personal virtue or specific conduct. Indeed, even general expectations (such as the desire to pursue challenging rather than monotonous activities) could be “overridden” by individual idiosyncrasy (TJ 429). The point of envisioning a happy life plan was not social engineering or paternalist surveillance but rather the state’s acknowledgement of actually existing human tendencies. The “design of social institutions” must make “a large place” for patterns of human conduct that do not violate rules of justice (429). Rawls’s idea of happiness accommodated, for instance, the eccentric (fictive) individual who makes a living solving math problems but “whose only pleasure is to count blades of grass in various geometrically shaped areas” (432). Although unconventional and possibly “neurotic,” this person’s pursuit is freely chosen and, in the final analysis, “ties in with the primary good of self-respect” (432, 433).48 At the same time, the life plan does entail a person to respect a sense of temporal endurance or existential “continuity,” which “reminds us that since a plan is a scheduled sequence of activities, earlier and later activities are bound to affect one another” (420). Such self-knowledge generates considerations of a future structured by increments—with provisions for its becoming “relatively less specific for later periods” (410). Rawls’s incrementalist protocol, in other words, insists that noncontingent principles of justice inhering in institutions are commensurate with an equally noncontingent principle of self-respect inhering in persons. In this manner, the postwar era’s most important liberal theorist envisioned an ongoing dialectic between individual flourishing and the structures of interdependence—both intimate and impersonal—entailed by a socioeconomic system of distributive justice.

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A 1973 dystopian fantasy written by Arrow’s and Rawls’s slightly younger contemporary Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” may be understood to illustrate the implications for happiness and justice of adhering to Arrow’s social choice theory rather than to Rawls’s system of justice as fairness. In brief, it is a kind of parable, presenting an idyllic, prosperous, happy, consummately civil, and well-knit society on the occasion of its annual Festival of Summer. The self-reflexive narrator summons the reader to participate in choosing some of the elements comprising the city, thus coyly satisfying utilitarianism’s criterion of individual preference. “Perhaps it would be best,” the narrator suggests, “if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, . . . for certainly I cannot suit you all.” Between all the things that are ruled in as “necessary” and ruled out as “destructive” are innumerable options: “central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that: it doesn’t matter. As you like it.”49 The narrator’s mounting insistence on the relevance of the reader’s nearly unrestricted preferences conforms to Arrow’s utilitarian world in which the aggregate of individual sets of preferences constitutes its happiness and its justice.

And yet, there’s a gruesome hitch. In the final pages the narrator explains that all this happy prosperity and social cooperation—as all the citizens “understand”—depends on the incarceration and “abominable misery” of a young child. And as though in express violation of Rawls’s difference principle of justice, this child’s life has suffered a turn for the worse. The child “can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice”; it “used to scream for help,” but now all it manages to express is “a kind of whining” as it withers away in squalor and infirmity.50 This is what provokes a few to walk away in the end. Le Guin, in other words, exposes the problem of relying on aggregated preferences instead of on a social contract committed to justice as fairness.


1. Philip Roth, Reading Myself and Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), 175–77. More recently, Eric Klinenberg has made similar points about the library’s role in cultivating a young person’s sense of trust and responsibility. See his Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life (New York: Crown, 2018), 38.

2. John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958), 283. Hereafter abbreviated as AS, with page references appearing in the text.

3. As the historian John Patrick Diggins puts it, “In the 1950s the classical notion of liberalism as the preservation of life and property simply became peace and prosperity for the majority.” The Proud Decades: America in War and Peace, 1941–1960 (New York and London: Norton, 1988), 131, emphasis added.

4. Friedrich A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944), ix, xv.

5. J. Donald Moon, introduction to Responsibility, Rights, and Welfare: The Theory of the Welfare State, ed. J. Donald Moon (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1988), 7. For a more skeptical account of Galbraith’s agenda, see Sean McCann, “‘They Make Their Own Tragedies Too’: Harvey Swados and Postwar Liberalism’s Discourse of Dependency,” in Literary/Liberal Entanglements: Toward a Literary History for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Corrinne Harol and Mark Simpson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), 304–5.

6. Lionel Trilling, “William Dean Howells and the Roots of Modern Taste,” in The Opposing Self: Nine Essays in Criticism (New York: Viking, 1955), 87, 92.

7. Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955; repr., New York: Vintage, 1962), 237.

8. Russell W. Davenport, “A Life Round Table on the Pursuit of Happiness,” Life 25, no. 2 (July 12, 1948): 96. Hereafter cited as Life, with page references appearing in the text.

9. There was one racial exception: the views of one married black couple who participated in a preliminary discussion were cited (Life 104, 107).

10. Richard Godden, Fictions of Capital: The American Novel from James to Mailer (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 172.

11. Wendy Wall, Inventing the “American Way”: The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008), 165.

12. Wall, Inventing, 172.

13. Wall, 201, 202.

14. John Higham, “The Cult of ‘American Consensus’: Homogenizing Our History,” Commentary 27 (February 1959): 94.

15. Higham, “Cult,” 96.

16. Diggins, Proud Decades, 113–14.

17. E. L. Doctorow, The Book of Daniel (1971; repr., London: Penguin Classics, 2006), 14. Hereafter abbreviated as BD, with page references appearing in the text.

18. Daniel more obliquely implies that his wife, Phyllis, is marked by a similar morbidity. When they go to Washington, DC, for the Pentagon protest, the charming room they’ve procured in an elderly woman’s house allows Phyllis to feel “serenely happy suspended in this quiet room in the absolute stillness in this house” (BD 309). Rather than appreciate this capacity for serenity, Daniel likes to subvert it, evinced by his habit of subjecting her to psychosexual torment. For egregious instance (often cited by critics), on the day after Susan’s suicide attempt, he demands, while driving down the highway, that Phyllis remove her pants—under threat of increasing the vehicle’s speed—and then proceeds first to fondle her genitalia and next to brand her buttock with the cigarette lighter (74). There is no explanation for this action, and no remorse. Earlier he had described himself as a “betrayer”—as “the kind of betrayer who betrays for no reason” (20).

19. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 7.

20. Agamben, Homo Sacer, 8, 9.

21. Agamben, 9–10.

22. Agamben, 134, 186.

23. Agamben, 188.

24. Agamben, 79.

25. Doctorow once described his novel’s nonlinearity in terms of the influence the television show Laugh-In had on him while he was drafting it: “[Its] idea of discontinuity and black-outs and running changes on voice and character—it was that kind of nerve energy I was looking for.” It was written “out of a spirit of transgression.” E. L. Doctorow: Essays and Conversations, ed. Richard Trenner (Princeton, NJ: Ontario Review Press, 1983), 41, 47.

26. Daniel’s acquiescence to this logic becomes particularly cruel when he passes on Susan’s psychic affliction of trauma to the next generation, his infant son. In Riverside Park, as though reversing Freud’s fort/da game of emotional loss and recovery, he throws the boy higher and higher into the air while catching him closer and closer to the ground, so that the boy is ultimately “locked in absolute dumb dread” (BD 161). With the infant scared nearly to death—“concentrating on his fear” of “the breathtaking flight” and “even more terrifying fall”—while the father entertains a “murderous feeling” (161), the scene figures a multigenerational continuity of the psychically damned. Personal-political wreckage is chronic: from executed father to sadistic son to terrorized grandson. Daniel’s history of the present maps the reduction of happiness to zero.

27. Doug Rossinow, “Partners for Progress? Liberals and Radicals in the Long Twentieth Century,” in Making Sense of Liberalism, ed. Jonathan Bell and Timothy Stanley (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 19–20.

28. See T. V. Reed, “Genealogy/Narrative/Power: Questions of Postmodernity in Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel,” American Literary History 4, no. 2 (Summer 1992): 295; and Michael Szalay, Hip Figures: A Literary History of the Democratic Party (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 245.

29. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146 (1984): 70.

30. Fredric Jameson, “Periodizing the 60s,” Social Text 9/10 (Spring/Summer 1984): 183.

31. The terms of anthropology seem the most appropriate way to account for a modern nation-state’s assertion of certain basic values, such as being educated rather than ignorant and healthy rather than ill and seeking to flourish over a lifetime rather than to wither. As the Marxist critic Robin Blackburn puts it, “The requirements of human flourishing have certain material and ideal components and these furnish an anthropological basis for the notion of ‘human rights’ and popular recognition of this fact helps to give rights claims their traction.” See “Reclaiming Human Rights,” New Left Review 69 (May/June 2011): 137.

32. Wendy Wall notes how poorly the mainstream consensus model served movements such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s push for civil rights: “Powerful as it was, the language of national consensus also had profound limits. In adopting this rhetoric, King and others were forced to abandon other languages—international socialism, black nationalism, and perhaps most important, human rights—that had propelled movements for equality in earlier decades.” See Wall, Inventing, 285–86.

33. Ian Balfour and Eduardo Cadava, “The Claims of Human Rights: An Introduction,” South Atlantic Quarterly 103, nos. 2/3 (Spring/Summer 2004): 280–81.

34. Balfour and Cadava, “Claims,” 281.

35. Balfour and Cadava, 293.

36. United Nations, preamble, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, last accessed October 10, 2012,

37. Samuel Moyn, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 in the History of Cosmopolitanism,” Critical Inquiry 40, no. 4 (Summer 2014): 369, 380. For criticism of Moyn’s dismissal of the significance of the UDHR (and other pre-1970s texts) in the history of nonwelfarist rights, see Blackburn, “Reclaiming Human Rights,” 126–38.

38. Harry K. Girvetz, The Evolution of Liberalism, intro. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (London: Collier, 1963), 233.

39. With regard to consensus, the General Assembly could announce unanimous approval of the UDHR in December 1948, but only in the shadow of abstention on the part of several communist and authoritarian countries and the absence of numerous others. Still, as Edmund Fawcett comments in his recent longitudinal study, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, “The achievement was large nevertheless, and so recognized at the time. The moral climate was palpable. . . . December 1948 may properly be counted as a moment when liberal democracy was recognized as a global, not a narrowly Western, aspiration.” See Liberalism: The Life of an Idea (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 293.

40. See, for instance, Wendy Brown’s critique of Michael Ignatieff, whose human rights defense she characterizes as tantamount to a defense of neoliberal free-market individualism at the expense of collective governance in “‘The Most We Can Hope For . . .’: Human Rights and the Politics of Fatalism,” South Atlantic Quarterly 103, nos. 2/3 (Spring/Summer 2004): 451–63; and Bruce Robbins and Elsa Stamatopoulou’s discussion of the UDHR’s neglect of indigenous collective rights and colonized states’ rights to self-determination in “Reflections on Culture and Cultural Rights,” South Atlantic Quarterly 103, nos. 2/3 (Spring/Summer 2004): 419–34.

41. Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 57, 92. It’s worth noting that Sen, Arrow, and Rawls joint-taught a seminar on rationality and justice at Harvard in 1968. See S. M. Amadae, Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 258. I discuss at greater length Rawls’s engagement with Arrow’s social choice theory in “The Idea of Happiness: Back to the Postwar Future,” in Postmodern/Postwar—and After, ed. Jason Gladstone, Andrew Hoberek, and Daniel Worden (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press 2016): 127–40. Katrina Forrester, in her recent account of Rawls’s massive influence on political philosophy, contends that “by the end of the 1950s, the architecture of his theory was in place,” including his commitment to consensus as “a ‘heuristic device’ to yield justifiable principles for judgment that would allow room for change.” She also notes that Rawls was a beneficiary of the GI Bill. See Katrina Forrester, In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019), 3, 5, 6.

42. John Rawls, “The Sense of Justice” (1963), in John Rawls: Collected Papers, ed. Samuel Freeman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 115.

43. John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness” (1958), in John Rawls: Collected Papers, ed. Samuel Freeman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 66, 70.

44. Rawls, “Justice as Fairness,” 66.

45. Rawls, 50.

46. John Rawls, “Distributive Justice: Some Addenda” (1968), in John Rawls: Collected Papers, ed. Samuel Freeman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 158.

47. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 549, 550. Hereafter abbreviated as TJ, with page references appearing in the text.

48. Perhaps even more relevant to this study than Rawls’s odd figure of the flourishing grass counter is Rawls’s invocation of aesthetic objects as analogical “exemplars of human flourishing” (TJ 550). He likens the fulfillment of an aspirational life plan to “compositions, paintings, and poems,” for they exemplify “a certain completeness which though marred by circumstance and human failing is evident from the whole” (550).

49. Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973), in 30/30: Thirty American Stories from the Last Thirty Years, ed. Porter Shreve and B. Minh Nguyen (New York: Penguin, 2006), 211.

50. Le Guin, “Omelas,” 213. This abject child occupies the position of the slave that, Rawls argues, utilitarianism logically permits. See “Justice as Fairness,” 67. By contrast, his contract doctrine is premised on equal liberty. In later essays, “Constitutional Liberty and the Concept of Justice” (1963) and “Distributive Justice” (1967), he strengthens the argument by introducing the idea of an original position in which contracting members “do not know their own talents and abilities. That is, they have no knowledge of how they will fare in the competition for positions in an open society.” See “Constitutional Liberty and the Concept of Justice,” in John Rawls: Collected Papers, ed. Samuel Freeman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 81. He deduces that this “veil of ignorance” would compel the social contract to eliminate caste hierarchies because no rational person would take the risk of becoming a slave. See “Distributive Justice,” in John Rawls: Collected Papers, ed. Samuel Freeman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 132. In this point of the doctrine lies arguably the most consequential distinction between Rawls’s theory of justice as fairness and utilitarian welfare economics.