The Art of Happiness in Philip Roth
This chapter examines the fiction of Philip Roth and finds within it a nuanced account of “the relation between aesthetic value or quality and that paradigmatic postwar American feeling, happiness.” It brings to bear a theory that involves a range of social commentators and sociological analysts from the middle of the twentieth century (Howard Mumford Jones, C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, Lionel Trilling, Melvin Tumin, William Whyte) who collectively turned their attention to the question of post-World War II American society and its vaunted pursuit of happiness. They, like Roth, found this pursuit to be in large measure vulgar and materialistic, shallow and self-centered, and they sought to identify means of enabling authentic affective experience to flourish and superior aesthetic encounters to take place. The chapter culminates in an interpretation of the engagement in Goodbye, Columbus between a young librarian who finds a way to make the library, as a particular institutional piece of a social structure, serve the affective and aesthetic needs of a black boy for whom a book of arts prints is an indescribably valuable inspiration.
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