The term Victorian, while it has long ceased to be as pejorative as it was in the writing of Lytton Strachey and others in the Bloomsbury group, is seldom unambiguously laudatory either, evoking at best a range of energies and virtues no doubt worthy enough, but restrictive and conventional, conservative in politics and culture alike. Amanda Anderson, a literary scholar who now teaches at Brown, has established her reputation by consistently seeking to overturn these associations. In The Powers of Distance: Cosmopolitanism and the Cultivation of Detachment (2001), she set out to show that far from being parochial or unreflective, leading Victorian writers—Charlotte Brontë, Dickens, Arnold, Eliot—exemplified the values of critical enlightenment as conceived by Kant and updated by Habermas, denaturalizing rather than reproducing standard norms and conventions. A subsequent essay, ‘Victorian Studies and the Two Modernities’ (2005), took aim at those who would reduce this ‘ongoing achievement of consciousness’ to the emergence of a mere bourgeois modernity (Raymond Williams becoming a displaced target), or counterpose (Michel Foucault) the aesthetic modernity of the self-created individual in Baudelaire or Nietzsche to Kant’s philosophical-political ideal of autonomy. Victorian culture included both, as illustrated by figures like Wilde. The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory (2006) pressed home a Habermasian defence of the ‘Enlightenment project’ against poststructuralist attacks and the aspersions of a politics of identity. Upholding the claims of a robust and rigorous culture of rational argument, this intervention made Anderson’s name, consolidating her early acts of rebellion against the Foucauldian disciplinary paradigm in Victorian Studies.

In her new book, Bleak Liberalism, Anderson widens her optic from procedural to more directly political issues, undertaking this time to redeem liberalism from its defamers in the academy, who she contends have distorted it in two ways. First, by equating liberalism with neoliberalism, and so treating it as a form of callow historical optimism, believed to ‘legitimate rather than lament capitalist modernity’, ignoring ‘the structural inequities of the capitalist system, the conditions of power animating the social field’. Foucault and Agamben are the chief culprits here. Secondly, by depicting liberalism as essentially anaesthetic in outlook, incapable of responding to the predicaments and values—the fraught, the tragic, the sublime—that are the domain of art. John Rawls, in particular, with his grand theoretical edifices, serene disciplinary cadences and ‘thin theory of the good’, offers unfortunate ammunition to critics here. For Anderson, both are misprisions. In rebuttal of the former, she appeals to a line of liberal thinkers who either were critical of social inequities—Mill, Hobhouse, Dewey—or who, far from being uncomplicated optimists, were acutely aware of the travails and limitations of human progress, facing these with a chastened moral realism, whose continuing insights need above all to be recovered. Here Anderson’s roll-call includes Lionel Trilling, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, Daniel Bell, Reinhold Niebuhr, Albert Camus, Raymond Aron and Isaiah Berlin. In refutation of the latter, she musters a set of liberal novelists—Dickens, Gaskell, Trollope, Eliot—whose narratives compose an aesthetic equivalent, and whose latter-day successors showed themselves fully able to master the modernist turn supposedly subversive of the premises of individual character at work in earlier realist traditions associated with nineteenth-century liberalism (Ralph Ellison, Doris Lessing).

In a comparative context, Bleak Liberalism might at first glance be grouped with rehabilitations of liberalism in other times and places: in France, for example, with Pierre Rosanvallon’s Le moment Guizot (1985) or Marcel Gauchet’s essays on Constant and Tocqueville from the same period. These, however, were recuperations of political thinkers long marginalized in a culture resistant to the very notion of liberalism, whereas in the Anglosphere, liberalism has enjoyed an equally prolonged dominance in political thought, as overwhelming today as at any time in the past. In the English-speaking world, another stout defence and illustration of it might seem superfluous. But in Anderson’s eyes, her own discipline of literary studies has proved peculiarly allergic to liberalism and eager to embrace such ‘anti-liberal’ concepts as Foucault’s biopower. This aversion, she holds, has been based on a false opposition between the normative and procedural values of liberalism on the one hand, and the aesthetic values—irony, tragedy, complexity, difficulty—in which the discipline is deeply invested, on the other. Her remedy is offered in two parts. Against the caricature of liberalism as a ‘thin’, ‘abstract’, ‘naively optimistic’ and insufficiently ‘realistic’ theory, Anderson undertakes to reveal the true character of liberal thought, marked by a ‘complex and “thick” array of attitudinal stances, affective dispositions, and political objectives’. Once properly reconstructed, a richer and subtler liberal aesthetic comes into view, disclosing new lines and shades in the history of the novel.

Bleak Liberalism’s opening statement for the defence establishes the book’s historiographic method and its organizing trope: Anderson isolates a particular moment of liberal thought—the ‘bleakness’ of vision of a leading set of its protagonists in the Cold War period—and makes it the lens through which liberalism and its history can be reconsidered, redeemed and, in the end, restored to literature. Cold War liberals, on this reading, shared a political mood discernible in their historical pessimism, ‘chastened rationalism’ and acute sense of the limits of individual, social and political possibility. In their writing, a ‘tragic ethos’ was interwoven with ‘pragmatic politics’ into a body of work—a canon featuring Schlesinger’s The Vital Center (1949), Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination (1950) and Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History (1952)—in which the ‘political commitment is somehow deepened by the subtending existential stance’.

Invocations of a climate of anxiety and fear are a recurrent trope in histories of the American 1930s and 40s, from Schlesinger’s ‘contagion of fear’ and ‘fog of despair’ to more recent works such as Ira Katznelson’s 2013 Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. The opening vignette to the first volume of Schlesinger’s Age of Roosevelt (1957) shows this liberal pathetic fallacy at work. The scene is Washington, 1933, on the morning of Roosevelt’s inauguration: ‘Saturday, March 4, dawned grey and bleak’. Yet the dawn was that of a new era in American history:

The age of Franklin Roosevelt is a watershed in the history of the United States, the great dividing line in the nation’s life between innocence and responsibility. During his years, America emerged from nineteenth-century simplicity, encountered world war and depression and world war again, and began to bear both the grandeur and the guilt of international power.

Cold War liberalism was a twice-born thing. ‘The degeneration of the Soviet Union’, Schlesinger wrote in The Vital Center, along with the rise of fascism, ‘reminded my generation rather forcibly that man was, indeed, imperfect, and that the corruptions of power could unleash great evil in the world. We discovered a new dimension of experience—the dimension of anxiety, guilt, and corruption.’ Reinhold Niebuhr’s theology of self-aware resolve in the face of evil, like Schlesinger’s ‘moderate’ pessimism, was presented as the lesson taught by a didactically catastrophic century, as post-war American liberalism confronted communism: