The Good Life and Its Discontents

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

American public opinion polling in the 1990’s consistently reveals a society anxious about the future and apprehensive about priorities that seem out of whack. The polls also show that Americans are alarmed by the society’s moral decline. At the same time, ambivalence abounds about how to cope in these circumstances.

How did Americans become so discontented? What can be done about this melancholy? Samuelson, an astute columnist for NEWSWEEK and THE WASHINGTON POST, seeks answers to those questions. THE GOOD LIFE AND ITS DISCONTENTS grew out of his journalistic studies about the economic, political, and social development of the United States in the fifty years after World War II.

Identifying a peculiarly American “dis-ease,” Samuelson’s book has three major parts plus an epilogue. The three parts diagnose the malady; the epilogue makes a modest attempt to prescribe steps toward health. According to Samuelson, American discontent results from an inflated sense of entitlement, a naive optimism about capitalism, and a glut of “overpromise.” Straightforward and sober, the remedy—greater realism and responsibility—will be difficult for American dreamers to achieve, but failure to use the prescription, Samuelson judges correctly, is not a chance that the United States should take.

Samuelson’s prescription is conservative, unpretentious, and sketchy. He acknowledges that it may not be enough. Yet he is convinced that the Age of Entitlement cannot be sustained and that attempts to sustain it will do more harm than good. He sees Americans groping their way toward a more responsible society. Moving in that direction, he hopes that a revised American Dream can encourage citizens to meet their obligations to one another by laying the Age of Entitlement to rest.

Sources for Further Study

Choice. XXXIII, May, 1996, p. 1527.

The Economist. CCCXXXVIII, January 20, 1996, p. 85.

Institutional Investor. XXX, May, 1996, p. 172.

Los Angeles Times. January 12, 1996, p. E6.

The Nation. CCLXII, March 18, 1996, p. 25.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, January 28, 1996, p. 25.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, November 13, 1995, p. 52.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXII, Summer, 1996, p. 97.

The Wall Street Journal. January 16, 1996, p. A12.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, February 4, 1996, p. 5.