Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State

Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State

Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State

Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State


We think we know what upward mobility stories are about--virtuous striving justly rewarded, or unprincipled social climbing regrettably unpunished. Either way, these stories seem obviously concerned with the self-making of self-reliant individuals rather than with any collective interest. In Upward Mobility and the Common Good, Bruce Robbins completely overturns these assumptions to expose a hidden tradition of erotic social interdependence at the heart of the literary canon.

Reinterpreting novels by figures such as Balzac, Stendhal, Charlotte Brontë, Dickens, Dreiser, Wells, Doctorow, and Ishiguro, along with a number of films, Robbins shows how deeply the material and erotic desires of upwardly mobile characters are intertwined with the aid they receive from some sort of benefactor or mentor. In his view, Hannibal Lecter of The Silence of the Lambs becomes a key figure of social mobility in our time. Robbins argues that passionate and ambiguous relationships (like that between Lecter and Clarice Starling) carry the upward mobility story far from anyone's simple self-interest, whether the protagonist's or the mentor's. Robbins concludes that upward mobility stories have paradoxically helped American and European society make the transition from an ethic of individual responsibility to one of collective accountability, a shift that made the welfare state possible, but that also helps account for society's fascination with cases of sexual abuse and harassment by figures of authority.


Woody Allen tells the story of being a civil rights worker about to be lynched by the Ku Klux Klan. His whole life flashes before his eyes. He sees images of himself buying some gingham for Emmy Lou, swimming in the old swimming hole, and cooking up a mess o’ catfish (the o’ is accented). Suddenly he realizes—it’s not his own life he’s seeing. It’s someone else’s.

I considered giving this book the title “Someone Else’s Life.” the tribute would have been in part to Woody Allen, who grew up on the same Brooklyn street as my father and, as local boy made good, became a source of pride as well as entertainment and philosophical instruction for me, my parents, and my siblings. Pride of this sort was not to be counted on in my family. My grandfather, running into Woody Allen’s father one day in Florida, where they had both retired, bragged that his son, my father, was in textiles and doing very well. “And your boy?” he asked. “Still writing jokes?”

The other lives to which I would have paid tribute by means of that title, and to which (having opted for a more pedestrian and informative title) I am now attempting to pay tribute without it, belong to my parents. the first upward mobility stories I heard, the ones I have never managed to stop thinking about, were theirs. As I was growing up, much was said about what they had gone through during the Depression. When they were barely teenagers, one in Brooklyn, one in the Bronx, each was already the main source of income for their struggling families. They had stories about evictions, stories about being humiliated in front of the butcher and the grocer. Poverty was not always ennobling. My father’s family was not always on the right side of the law. My mother’s family sometimes relied on assistance from unnamed institutions. My grandmother was ashamed to be seen taking handouts, so my mother and her sister were sent with a wagon to bring home the free flour, rice, and beans. Even as my parents hauled themselves into respectability in the boom years of the 1950s, damaged lives surrounded them, demanding their help. When Uncle Willie had to skip town, he hid in a doorway across the street from the bank while my father withdrew all but $100 of his skimpy savings. the effort to keep the extended family’s heads above water never seemed to end. By comparison, my brother and sister and I

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