skip to Main Content

Review of The Pursuit of Happiness and the American Regime

Review Of The Pursuit Of Happiness And The American Regime

The Pursuit of Happiness and the American Regime: Political Theory in Literature. Elizabeth Amato. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018.


In a time marked by enormous economic inequality, upsurges in nationalism and racism, mounting environmental catastrophe, and political life tending toward factional conflict, it is tempting to conclude with scholars like Patrick Deneen, that liberalism has, indeed, failed.[1] Such a failure of liberalism has significant implications for the largest, most influential, and self-confident liberal regime, the United States of America. For liberalism, times of crisis are especially acute because liberalism’s chief theoretical architects make their case on self-consciously “low but solid ground” of modern natural rights doctrine. If most liberal theorists are agnostic at best on the question of the best life for human beings, aiming only to prevent the worst one from coming about through the pursuit of self-interest, liberalism’s legitimacy is threatened if it is perceived to fail in this more modest goal. We might therefore wonder whether there are un- or under-explored avenues for evaluating the integrity and vitality of the American liberal regime.

In her classic study, Natural Right and the American Imagination: Political Philosophy in Novel Form, Catherine Zuckert observes that American novelists have long questioned the “self-evidence” of the “truths” articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Zuckert suggests that the novelists she surveys are involved not in showing the truth of Lockean liberalism, but instead its necessary antecedent: that human life is good and therefore worthy of preservation.[2] Zuckert shows why the limitations of liberal political theory in fact make an argument in favor of the literary form novel as a way of reflecting on political things: “If the goodness of human life is not externally visible, American political institutions ultimately must be founded in an appreciation of the beauty of the inner life of an ordinary person . . . that beauty cannot be described historically or analyzed theoretically. It can be revealed through the work of the literary artist.”[3] American liberalism is thus best understood as responding to an appreciation of the beauty of human life that cannot be easily theoretically articulated. Zuckert’s point, moreover, would seem to highlight the pursuit of happiness as the least visible or tangible of the three major natural rights described in the Declaration. A potential defense of American liberalism could then revolve around a defense of how happiness is pursued in this regime.

Elizabeth Amato’s The Pursuit of Happiness and the American Regime: Political Theory in Literature offers an attempt to do just this at a moment when the promises of the Declaration are once again thrown into serious question. Amato takes Zuckert’s insight and runs with it, producing a compelling vision of why—even with a clear-eyed appraisal of liberalism’s limitations—we might nevertheless find in America a regime worth defending.

Working in reverse chronological order, Amato’s book addresses some of the novels of Tom Wolfe, Walker Percy, Edith Wharton, and Nathaniel Hawthorne as they pertain to the pursuit of happiness in America. The first chapter of the book frames it as an intervention into a disagreement between happiness studies and liberal political theorists. Proponents of happiness studies point to the fact that the freedom defended by liberals does not seem to correlate with indicators of “subjective well being,” while liberals favor expansive liberty over any one specific vision of what the happy life should be. Amato, citing a criminally under-appreciated article by Joseph Cropsey,[4] splits the difference, arguing that the Declaration’s promise of the pursuit of happiness “makes [the United States] a self-reflective nation, not only because it provides the freedom for reflection on our individual and collective goals as human beings, but also because it itself does not undertake to define these goals for us” (10-11). Amato justifies her turn to the novelists because “in a liberal society like the United States, our way of life is only partially shaped by our political order and the other part shaped countervailing sources that both serve to correct the deficiencies within the state and to promote the pursuit of happiness” (11). Having admirably set up the debate, Amato then shows how this pursuit is figured differently in each of her novelists; however, because she addresses so many novels, sometimes the argument is burdened by the necessity of explaining a large number of complex plots and characters.

Amato begins with the recently deceased Tom Wolfe. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and I Am Charlotte Simmons, the pursuit of happiness emerges as the brave single individual fighting back against the pull of conformism and the pursuit of status in a mass society. The freedom Americans enjoy gives them the latitude to leave one social group and join or create another one. Throughout his works, Wolfe reaches back to the Stoics and eventually to classical thinkers like Aristotle to find virtues which might work against the pull of conformism in American society.

Stoicism appears again in Amato’s analysis of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, Lost in the Cosmos, and The Thanatos Syndrome.[5] Amato’s treatment of Percy suggests that Stoicism is insufficiently open to philosophical challenge, and, like modern science, exaggerates the autonomy available to human beings: “Percy reminds us of our common existential predicament and restores to us the fundamental question of ‘what shall I do’ that the pursuit of happiness tries implicitly to answer” (91). Percy, in Amato’s reading, recommends searching “with fellow wayfarers” as the means of living well, even if the pursuit of happiness is, for him, a questionable one. Amato is surely correct that Percy’s analysis of, and response to, the predicament of life in modern America is deeper than Wolfe’s, but her analysis oddly does not fully weigh the role played by Percy (and Tom Moore’s) commitment to Catholicism as a specific mode of living well and searching together. Percy, more than the other novelists Amato reads, is concerned with what one his philosophical inspirations, Søren Kierkegaard, calls “eternal happiness.” What is more, Percy’s Tom Moore books might be better understood as postliberal books—they are set in a future America in which church and state alike are starting have suffered (admittedly vague) catastrophe.

Amato compares the antinomianism of Wolfe and Percy unfavorably with Edith Wharton’s situating of the pursuit of happiness within traditional society. Amato compares Wharton’s The Custom of the Country with The Age of Innocence. Contrasting Undine Spragg’s dissolution of all bonds and responsibility with Newland Archer’s eventual decision to use his liberty to embrace duty, Amato shows that for Wharton the pursuit of happiness is not in conflict with the good of society, but can be actualized only within the context of a political community.

This last theme is dealt with more comprehensively in the final—and strongest—chapter on Nathaniel Hawthorne. The heart of the book appropriately deals with the mysteries of the human heart. Amato reads Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter alongside The House of Seven Gables. Amato’s impressively weaves considerations of its two accompanying sketches, “The Custom House,” and “The Old Manse,” into a persuasive reading of The Scarlett Letter itself. Reflecting on Hawthorne’s self-reflection on his task as an author, Amato shows how he both reveals and conceals himself to his readers. Moreover, she shows how Hawthorne is aware not only of the dangers of the Puritan society, but also of the crude individualism of the materialistic denizens of the Custom House. Amato’s Hawthorne thus sees both the strengths and weakness inherent in American liberalism.

Amato moreover shows how Hawthorne’s literary technique signals his view that “the dangerous tendency to assume that an individual is knowable demystifies the individual, robs her of inner liberty, and opens up an avenue for manipulation and control. For Hawthorne, our political liberty depends on the belief that the individual is distinctive, partially hidden from view, and so beyond the direct control of the state” (132). Amato impressively shows that Hawthorne’s mirrors the sort of politics he prefers: unlike his contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson, who promises more transparency than literature can provide, Hawthorne wants to both invite us into his Old Manse while concealing the innermost recesses of his heart. Political liberty in turn responds to the fact that human beings are ultimately unknowable. Finally, through a compelling reading of the follow-up to The Scarlett Letter, The House of Seven Gables, Amato shows that Hawthorne holds up the mottled community that forms at the end of that book as a way of balancing liberty with the pursuit of happiness through friendship.

In her conclusion, Amato observes that “[b]y burdening and weakening the formation and maintenance of meaningful human relationships that constructively shape and limit the individual pursuit of happiness, the Declaration undermines its very purpose—to provide the foundation for the pursuit of happiness” (176). She goes on to note that the unfinished character of the Declaration nevertheless allows the freedom for human beings to seek happiness together through friendship. Happiness in America is ultimately “being at home with being imperfectly at home,” a feat best achieved through searching together in friendship with others. Thus the strength of American liberalism comes from its awareness of its own limitations, and for the space it leaves for the pursuit of happiness through more traditional (read: Aristotelian) means. So although liberalism has a corrosive effect on the very resources which make flourishing possible for those of us who live within it, Amato’s study suggests that the American regime can be defended on the grounds of its limitation of government. While such a solution will not please everyone, it suggests at least, a way forward by attempting to preserve the liberty through which happiness may be pursued, and by positively encouraging this pursuit.

In the last analysis, it should be observed that the truly political option in this book appears only in Hawthorne, the oldest and least liberal of the authors surveyed. We might read Amato’s argument backwards, as the story of a gradual chipping away at the type of regime recommended by Hawthorne, perhaps caused by the almost Bradleyian insistence on the fulfillment of one’s duty to traditional culture valorized by Wharton, until we arrive at the more individualist visions of Percy and Wolfe.

This book is an ideal resource for faculty in political science looking to develop undergraduate courses on American political thought, American novels and political theory, or in politics and literature more broadly. It is also valuable for the many insightful readings of important works of American literature it presents, and as a development of Zuckert’s case for the novel as a work of political theory. Most importantly, however, Amato’s American novelists allow for an exploration of the sources of human flourishing above, below, before, and, yes, after liberalism. Life in liberal democratic regimes is often better and richer than liberal political thought has been able to predict or defend. At this juncture, these reminders of the reasons why life in America can be good, and how and why the liberal project in America is at least worthy of partial defense, are timely and important. In an understated way, Amato makes the case for why if we care about our regimes and our happiness, we should get off social media and pick up a novel instead. Amato’s recommendations of these tales and the wild and vibrant pursuit of happiness in America are a happy corrective to our current prognostications about liberalism’s end.



[1] Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018).

[2] Catherine Zuckert, Natural Right and the American Imagination: Political Philosophy in Novel Form (Lanham, MD: 1990), 242.

[3] Zuckert, Natural Right and the American Imagination, 242.

[4] Joseph Cropsey, Political Philosophy and the Issues of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

[5] We might quibble with the classification of Lost in the Cosmos as a novel—Percy himself calls it a “self-help book,” if the last one, and Love in the Ruins features most of the important plot points of the space Odyssey almost directly—so why not work at developing the analysis of Tom Moore more deeply?


An excerpt of the book is available here.

Matt DinanMatt Dinan

Matt Dinan

Matt Dinan is an Assistant Professor in the Great Books Program and Coordinator of the Catholic Studies Program at St. Thomas University in Canada. His teaching and research interests are in the history of political philosophy and in the Roman Catholic intellectual tradition.

Back To Top