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Bleak Liberalism

Why is liberalism so often dismissed by thinkers from both the left and the right? To those calling for wholesale transformation or claiming a monopoly on “realistic” conceptions of humanity, liberalism’s assured progressivism can seem hard to swallow. Bleak Liberalism makes the case for a renewed understanding of the liberal tradition, showing that it is much more attuned to the complexity of political life than conventional accounts have acknowledged.

Amanda Anderson examines canonical works of high realism, political novels from England and the United States, and modernist works to argue that liberalism has engaged sober and even stark views of historical development, political dynamics, and human and social psychology. From Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and Hard Times to E. M. Forster’s Howards End to Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, this literature demonstrates that liberalism has inventive ways of balancing sociological critique and moral aspiration. A deft blend of intellectual history and literary analysis, Bleak Liberalism reveals a richer understanding of one of the most important political ideologies of the modern era.

192 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2016

History: History of Ideas

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Society

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

Philosophy: Political Philosophy

Sociology: Individual, State and Society


“The existential challenge of pluralism is of critical value to any politics and aesthetics worth fighting for in our bleak political climate. Nothing better equips us for such a challenge than Bleak Liberalism. . . Anderson’s body of work makes significant original contributions to aesthetic and political theory, and her current study is no exception.”

Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences

Bleak Liberalism is an important book that will be of value to scholars of modern literature (broadly conceived) and critical theory as well as those thinking through the fate of the profession. Anderson’s ultimate achievement. . .is to renew a mode of criticism that is a necessary reprieve from the fashionable debates inhibiting the academy’s ability to promote a defense of literature that is politically informed, historically aware, pays acute attention to questions of aesthetics, and remains flexible in scope. . .Bleak Liberalism is refreshing in our ‘post-critique’ environment that expresses anxiety about critical methodology.”

Journal of Modern Literature

"Anderson’s invigorating new book seeks to rescue liberalism from its detractors on all sides. . .the defence offered here, though heartfelt and robust, is not a straightforward attempt at vindication: the point is, rather, that the best liberals got there first, and that the challenges opponents raise are already present in what Anderson calls ‘the lived reality of liberal thinking.’”

Times Literary Supplement

“On the academic left, liberalism is routinely associated with the evils of possessive individualism, free markets, and the system of New World slavery: it is as if all liberals are really neoliberals. Bleak Liberalism is a bracing reminder of the often-overlooked complexities and tensions in the liberal intellectual tradition—in the work of Victorian reformers, modern skeptics, and Cold War anticommunists. But more than that, it is a worthy successor to Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, delineating a robust and expansive liberal aesthetic in the history of the novel. This book is a major work of literary and cultural criticism.”

Michael Bérubé, author of What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher Education

“How does liberalism relate to literature? Amanda Anderson sets us straight on a much abused word by teasing out liberalism’s complex entanglement with literary history and literary form. Her book is a triumph of analytical precision and careful description as well as a rebuttal of lazy thinking. Bleak Liberalism is a major contribution to literary theory and political theory that is sure to stimulate much discussion.”

Rita Felski, author of The Limits of Critique

“Anderson’s bold, sharply edged argumentation throws down the gauntlet against misunderstandings of liberalism by the right and the left. Adorno is strikingly juxtaposed to Trilling and Ralph Ellison to Doris Lessing, all against the backdrop of Anderson’s powerful revaluation of the aesthetics and politics of major Victorian novels. An incisive rethinking of realism and modernism, the political and the aesthetic, and the labels radical, liberal, neoliberal.”

John Brenkman, author of The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy: Political Thought since September 11

“I wholeheartedly recommend this book. Anderson turns to a combination of literary criticism and intellectual history to show how liberalism can accommodate—and indeed is articulated in relation to—a ‘bleak’ view of history and society, that is, one which does not downplay the social and historical centrality of crisis, fluidity/unpredictability, and violence. Bleak Liberalism knows exactly what it wants to say, and what it wants to say is important and will interest many.” 

Simon During, author of Against Democracy: Literary Experience in the Era of Emancipations

Table of Contents


1 Bleak Liberalism
2 Liberalism in the Age of High Realism
3 Revisiting the Political Novel
4 The Liberal Aesthetic in the Postwar Era: The Case of Trilling and Adorno
5 Bleak Liberalism and the Realism/Modernism Debate: Ellison and Lessing


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