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.
"Bruce Robbins's powerful case . . . is that every successfully self-bettering individual relies upon others, and that the limit example of such dependence is embodied in the welfare state."--Modern Language Quarterly
"Robbins's book makes a timely appearance, given the current interest in immigration and class mobility, especially in the U.S. Robbins carefully distinguishes his study of upward mobility stories, both fiction and nonfiction, from other work on the subject...Robbins's style is readable and energetic; his brisk, lucid analyses flow. His notes are informative, offering full publishing information about texts he used in researching and writing this interesting book."--J.A. Dompkowski, Choice
"[I]n its method and its claims, this highly original, elegantly written book deserves a wide audience; in its effort to recast our understanding of the (class) politics of American literary history, it merits the deepest interest of readers of these pages."--Lori Merish, American Literary History
"For some time upward mobility stories have been a pervasive element of U.S. political culture. This is the best book around for understanding the complexities of how they work."--Evan Watkins, Novel
"Upward Mobility and the Common Good is an original and important treatment of a crucially important topic."--Dan Bivona, Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net
"Robbins' Upward Mobility shows us what literary criticism, at its very best, can do. . . . [He] throws into relief what had been an overlooked line of argument in other critics' works."--Amanda Claybaugh, The Minnesota Review
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