Land of Tomorrow: Postwar Fiction and the Crisis of American Liberalism (Oxford UP, 2018)
Many histories of the decades following World War II look to this period as the “apex of American liberalism.” My book shows, in contrast, how the literary writing and civic culture of these decades saw the development of a new type of liberalism–one that turned against the basic assumptions of New Deal reform and the legacy of the long Progressive era. To explore this major shift in American political culture, I examine the work of Vladimir Nabokov, Patricia Highsmith, Ralph Ellison, Walker Percy, Ken Kesey, and more than two dozen other writers and intellectuals. I read their work alongside major transformations in twentieth-century society. These transformations include the formation of new “aestheticized” models of civic society; the professionalization of psychology and the popularization of psychoanalysis; the reception of French existentialism; shifts in corporate management theory away from Taylorism; and the rise of an “independence regime” in US political culture.
Land of Tomorrow puts literary studies in conversation with intellectual history and political theory. For example, in the book’s third chapter, I show how many liberal thinkers borrowed from the psychological professions–and the theories of psychoanalysis–to understand poverty, crime, and mass conformity. This use of psychological templates influenced public intellectuals, novelists, and even the techniques of early television. As a result, collective behaviors were often recast as phenomena of a private psychological realm, and many liberals neglected the structural conditions of inequality by attending instead to the private lives of supposedly deviant and neurotic peoples. These liberals also recast possible social interventions after the image of therapy. I track this new way of thinking across work by several writers, including Patricia Highsmith and Richard Yates, as well as the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Each chapter moves between the granular features of individual works and wider changes in the structures of thought and feeling in postwar US culture. By moving between the granular and the structural, Land of Tomorrow shows how a diverse body of postwar thought gave cultural prestige to political sensibilities that betrayed the reformist impulses of an earlier era of American liberalism.