Bruce Robbins. Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007. ISBN: 978-0691049878. Price: US$35.00.[Record]

  • Dan Bivona

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  • Dan Bivona
    Arizona State University

Bruce Robbins’ new book, Upward Mobility and the Common Good, is a timely, wide-ranging piece of work: timely because, in focusing on the connection between a literary genre, the “upward mobility” narrative, and the rise of the welfare state, it engages with an important conversation in contemporary Victorian Studies; wide-ranging because it offers both intellectual reach and impressive coverage of a great variety of these tales. Robbins discusses Rousseau, Stendhal, Balzac, and Constant (among French writers); Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Horatio Alger, and George Gissing (among the Victorians); and H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw (not too surprisingly), Theodore Dreiser, Gertrude Stein, “the Angry Young Men,” Tillie Olsen, Carolyn Steedman, Richard Rodriguez, and Kazuo Ishiguro (among twentieth century writers). On the face of it, the book asserts a strange conjunction. What does the “upward mobility story,” the literary form that has been traditionally closely associated with bourgeois individualism, have to do with “the common good,” and why would anyone insist on saluting the Horatio Alger tales for teaching welfare state values? To Robbins’ credit, he is able to make a strong case for seeing the link between upward mobility for the individual and the common good while also centering his discussion around major (mainly) literary texts. It is a credit to Robbins’ achievement that one wonders, after reading his book, why anyone would have imagined that upward mobility tales were about anything as simple as individuals pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps (or failing to do so). Recent treatments of liberalism, particularly in Victorian Studies, have displayed an acute frustration with more than two decades of poststructuralist ironizing of liberal goals and intentions. Sometimes this frustration emerges in the direct form of a too-quick condemnation of the so-called baneful influence of Foucault on the field. Sometimes it takes more indirect forms. Amanda Anderson’s resuscitation of the Victorian ideal of “detachment” (in The Powers of Distance [2001]), Lauren Goodlad’s reclaiming of that hoary Victorian notion, “character” (in Victorian Literature and the Victorian State [2003]), and Daniel S. Malachuk’s rehabilitation of the liberal ideal of “the state” (in Perfection, the State, and Victorian Liberalism [2005]) are recent examples of works that seek to convince modern academic audiences to take Victorian liberal idealism seriously. Robbins’ book has much of value to add to this conversation, even if, as Disraeli and Bismarck might claim with some reason, the welfare state is not exclusively a product of liberal values. If the “welfare state” in the narrow sense did not come into being until the mid-twentieth century (at least in Britain and the United States), its ethical outlines can be glimpsed, nonetheless, in a variety of nineteenth century movements of social improvement ranging from the campaigns for sanitary improvements, to movements to restrict child labor, to abolish slavery and the slave trade, to improve the lot of the poor, and to institute universal public education. For Robbins, the “welfare state” is not an abstract moral or philosophical ideal, nor is its role in social surveillance invariably benign: he is too attentive to its status as a sometimes flawed social and political institution to make that claim. However, what he means by “the welfare state” here is something broader than the historically specific state form that was constructed by the Labour Party after it took power in Britain in 1945. Robbins’ “welfare state” is located somewhere in the territory between an actual political institution and a philosophical and moral ideal bearing some resemblance to Arnold’s perfectionist notion of “the state,” the agency whose job it is to see to it that the individual becomes his “best self.” …