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


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: The Symbolic Economy of Postwar American Happiness
chapter abstract

"The Symbolic Economy of Postwar American Happiness" enlists Philip Roth's paean to the Newark Public Library, alongside John Kenneth Galbraith's call for new "symbols of happiness," to set the stage for incremental realism's central proposition of keying the trope of happiness to protocols of welfare-state liberalism. It turns to four publishing events—two in 1948, two in 1971—to lay out the numerous obstacles this proposition faced owing to the vexed politics of liberalism and the problematic status of happiness: "A Life Round Table on The Pursuit of Happiness," the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel, and John Rawls's A Theory of Justice. It concludes with preliminary discussions of incremental realism as a critical framework, with brief nods to its paradigmatic practitioners: Philip Roth, Gwendolyn Brooks, Patricia Highsmith, Mary McCarthy, Paula Fox, and Peter Taylor.

1 The Art, Sociology, and Library Politics of Happiness in Early Philip Roth
chapter abstract

"The Art, Sociology, and Library Politics of Happiness in Early Philip Roth" situates Roth's early fiction within the context of midcentury sociology, psychology, history, and public policy. Drawing on the commentary of public intellectuals such as C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, Lionel Trilling, and Howard Mumford Jones, the chapter documents the pervasive skepticism toward happiness as a national pursuit while also pointing to the minority viewpoint that considered happiness an imaginative ideal bearing the potential to guide Americans toward welfare-state liberalism and socioeconomic justice. Focusing primarily on Goodbye, Columbus (1959), the chapter teases out Roth's commitment to municipal activism, evinced by his portrayal of the main character, a public librarian. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Saul Bellow's misguided short story, "Looking for Mr. Green" (1951), which Roth, in effect, rewrites.

2 Gwendolyn Brooks and the Welfare State
chapter abstract

In "Gwendolyn Brooks and the Welfare State," that author's creative writing, autobiographies, and public career make visible the intertwined conditions of midcentury liberal subjectivity, welfare-state activism, and the literary style of incremental realism. The chapter marshals numerous nonliterary sources to make this case, including Robert Dahl and Charles Lindblom's account of procedural incrementalism, Politics, Economics, and Welfare (1953); political philosopher Harry K. Girvetz's crusading promotion of political liberalism, The Evolution of Liberalism (1950); African American philosopher and journalist Marc Moreland's vehement defense of the welfare state in "The Welfare State: Embattled Concept" (1950); and social scientists Abram Kardiner and Lionel Ovesey's study of black character and personality, The Mark of Oppression (1951). But Brooks also recognized the pull of charismatic alternatives to the liberal paradigm.

3 Queer Consumerism, Straight Happiness: Patricia Highsmith's "Right Economy"
chapter abstract

"Queer Consumerism, Straight Happiness: Patricia Highsmith's 'Right Economy'" centers on Highsmith's novel, The Price of Salt (1952), often celebrated as the first lesbian novel with a happy ending. Alongside the infrastructure of postwar American consumerism that the novel's title obliquely references, Highsmith's and Eleanor Roosevelt's awareness of each other invites consideration of how the normative propositions built into the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights help to make sense of the novel's commitment to the moral idea spelled out in Article 26, namely, of "the full development of the human personality." Such ethical norms turn out to facilitate Highsmith's project of legitimating same-sex desire. But this project also depends on Highsmith's engagement with consumerist desire, a midcentury phenomenon that provoked much public consternation. Creating a kind of self-supporting circularity, Highsmith enlists consumerism to legitimate same-sex desire while also enlisting same-sex desire to legitimate consumerism.

4 Countries of Health
chapter abstract

"Countries of Health" takes its title from Sylvia Plath's poem, "Tulips," which crystallizes the way midcentury American writing could become entangled not only in what Susan Sontag described as a mystification of illness through "lurid metaphor" but also in the politics of actually existing health care. The chapter examines a series of novels—Trilling's The Middle of the Journey (1947), Mary McCarthy's The Group (1963), James Gunn's The Joy Makers (1961), and Paula Fox's Poor George (1967) and Desperate Characters (1970)—whose force depends on their representations of health-care systems and the value structures through which illness and health are refracted. These works help explain why welfare provisions have always been such a hard sell in the United States. They register the difficulty of displacing Sontag's lurid metaphor with Galbraith's symbols of happiness.

5 Writing Mute Liberalism: Peter Taylor, the South, and Journeyman Happiness
chapter abstract

"Writing Mute Liberalism: Peter Taylor, the South, and Journeyman Happiness" argues that Taylor is best understood as a literary ethnographer of southern liberalism. It explores how, in stories such as "In the Miro District" (1977) and "The Elect" (1968), Taylor deploys an incrementalist style of inductive analogy and digressive anecdote to represent the suppressive conditions under which moderate liberalism circulated in the South. It examines Taylor's attentiveness to what he called "the disadvantages or injustices or cruelties" in the South. With his tone of moderate civility, akin to Lionel Trilling's description of William Dean Howells, stories such as "1939" (1955), "Je Suis Perdu" (1958), and "Dean of Men" (1968) focus on men affiliated with universities and speak to the benefits of institutional liberalism—as opposed to the South's favored institution, the family, whose crippling effects are dramatized in The Death of a Kinsman (1949).

Coda: The Politics of Contemporary Happiness
chapter abstract

"The Politics of Contemporary Happiness" offers a highly compressed summary analysis of how the contemporary confluence of happiness science and postmodern happiness critique has resulted in the nearly total eclipse of the happiness trope's potential function as a welfare-state proposition. With Richard Powers's 2009 novel Generosity as a literary touchstone, the coda argues that postmodern and poststructuralist criticism effectively collaborates with happiness science to segregate happiness from normative politics, specifically from considerations of human flourishing and welfare-state justice. It traces the parallel ascendance of happiness science's disavowal of everything political—owing largely to its behavioral and geneticist methodologies—and of postmodernism's displacement of welfare-state liberalism by a politics of recognition and/or radical deterritorialization coded as joy. Both modes of disowning normative politics serve only to strengthen what Powers suggests is technofuturism's co-optation of happiness.