Negative Liberties

Morrison, Pynchon, and the Problem of Liberal Ideology

Negative Liberties

New Americanists

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Book Pages: 264 Illustrations: Published: May 2001

American Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism, Politics > Political Theory

Since the nineteenth century, ideas centered on the individual, on Emersonian self-reliance, and on the right of the individual to the pursuit of happiness have had a tremendous presence in the United States—and even more so after the Reagan era. But has this presence been for the good of all? In Negative Liberties Cyrus R. K. Patell revises important ideas in the debate about individualism and the political theory of liberalism. He does so by adding two new voices to the current discussion—Toni Morrison and Thomas Pynchon—to examine the different ways in which their writings embody, engage, and critique the official narrative generated by U.S. liberal ideology.
Pynchon and Morrison reveal the official narrative of individualism as encompassing a complex structure of contradiction held in abeyance. This narrative imagines that the goals of the individual are not at odds with the goals of the family or society and in fact obscures the existence of an unholy truce between individual liberty and forms of oppression. By bringing these two fiction writers into a discourse dominated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, George Kateb, Robert Bellah, and Michael Sandel, Patell unmasks the ways in which contemporary U.S. culture has not fully shed the oppressive patterns of reasoning handed down by the slaveholding culture from which American individualism emerged.
With its interdisciplinary approach, Negative Liberties will appeal to students and scholars of American literature, culture, sociology, and politics.


"[F]ew will find this book failing to provoke thought about its novelists and about American ideas of freedom."
— Robert Donahoo , Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas

"[I]nsightful readings. . . . [An] outstanding study. . . ." — Marc Conner , South Atlantic Review

"Patell’s discussion of Morrison and Pynchon forms an illuminating part of a significant and, I think, necessary unfolding scholarly dialogue as we seek to understand more fully American political traditions. For this, and irrespective of any ideological differences we might harbor, Negative Liberties very much deserves our studied attention and indeed respect."

— Jerry A. Varsava , Contemporary Literature

"Patell's readings of Pynchon and Morrison are . . . succinct and useful. . . . [C]ompelling. . . ." — Jim Neighbors, Modern Fiction Studies

Negative Liberties combines historical, literary, cultural, and political interests as it includes a historical study and critique of ‘individualism,’ excellent literary chapters devoted to fresh readings of Thomas Pynchon and Toni Morrison, and a political examination of the relationship of liberty and slavery. Inspired by Sacvan Bercovitch, Cyrus Patell’s book is a thoughtful contribution to American Studies.” — Werner Sollors, Harvard University

Negative Liberties is a sophisticated study of the appeal of the ideology of individualism in the United States. It is a vast and widely considered topic, but Patell has something new to say about it. His unique contribution comes out of his understanding of the human reliance on storytelling and the creation of narratives. Ethical and deeply engaging, this book adds an important new dimension to ideological criticism in the United States.” — Priscilla Wald, author of Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Cyrus R. K. Patell is Associate Professor of English at New York University. He is the author of Joyce’s Use of History in “Finnegans Wake” and a contributor to the Cambridge History of American Literature, Volume 7: Prose Writing, 1940–1990.

Table of Contents Back to Top

One: Narrating Individualism

Two: Idealizing Individualism

Three: Unenlightened Enlightenment

Four: Contemplating Community

Conclusion: Beyond Individualism


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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2669-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2664-9
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