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American Hungers

American Hungers: The Problem of Poverty in U.S. Literature, 1840-1945

Gavin Jones
Series: 20/21
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    American Hungers
    Book Description:

    Social anxiety about poverty surfaces with startling frequency in American literature. Yet, as Gavin Jones argues, poverty has been denied its due as a critical and ideological framework in its own right, despite recent interest in representations of the lower classes and the marginalized. These insights lay the groundwork forAmerican Hungers, in which Jones uncovers a complex and controversial discourse on the poor that stretches from the antebellum era through the Depression.

    Reading writers such as Herman Melville, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, James Agee, and Richard Wright in their historical contexts, Jones explores why they succeeded where literary critics have fallen short. These authors acknowledged a poverty that was as aesthetically and culturally significant as it was socially and materially real. They confronted the ideological dilemmas of approaching poverty while giving language to the marginalized poor--the beggars, tramps, sharecroppers, and factory workers who form a persistent segment of American society. Far from peripheral, poverty emerges at the center of national debates about social justice, citizenship, and minority identity. And literature becomes a crucial tool to understand an economic and cultural condition that is at once urgent and elusive because it cuts across the categories of race, gender, and class by which we conventionally understand social difference.

    Combining social theory with literary analysis,American Hungersmasterfully brings poverty into the mainstream critical idiom.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3191-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. INTRODUCTION The Problem of Poverty in Literary Criticism
    (pp. 1-20)

    This association of poverty with progress is the great enigma of our times,” wrote the social reformer Henry George toward the end of the nineteenth century, “the central fact from which spring industrial, social, and political difficulties that perplex the world, and with which statesmanship and philanthropy and education grapple in vain.” For George, the persistence of poverty in the wealthy nations of the industrialized world posed problems that were ideological as much as material—problems with the power to destroy the progressive notions underpinning “civilization” itself. If George was discussing a crisis that afflicted Western nations at large, then...

  2. ONE Beggaring Description: Herman Melville and Antebellum Poverty Discourse
    (pp. 21-61)

    The view expressed by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur inLetters from an American Farmer(1782), that the New World was the regenerative home for those individuals made “countryless” by their poverty, received radical revision in the years leading up to the Civil War. David Rothman has shown how antebellum Americans differed from their forebears in seeing poverty as a dangerous social problem in need of urgent reform—a response to the economic instability of the antebellum decades, and to the newfound visibility of homelessness, which grew quickly after 1820 and became epidemic during the depression of 1857.¹ Apparently...

  3. TWO Being Poor in the Progressive Era: Dreiser and Wharton on the Pauper Problem
    (pp. 62-105)

    Theodore dreiser’sSister Carrie(1900) and Edith Wharton’sThe House of Mirth(1905) have often been intertwined in the minds of literary critics, dating back at least to a 1907 review that noted the novels’ parallel concerns with the surrender to sexual pleasure. Recent critics have observed the similar social descents of Dreiser’s George Hurstwood and Wharton’s Lily Bart,¹ yet over the past two decades criticism has turned its attention from the theme of poverty to the inner workings of capitalist consumerism. For Walter Benn Michaels, Rachel Bowlby, Michael Davitt Bell, and Amy Kaplan (among others),Sister Carrieis obsessed...

  4. THREE The Depression in Black and White: Agee, Wright, and the Aesthetics of Damage
    (pp. 106-147)

    Historians of 1930s America have sought to distinguish the Great Depression from earlier economic crises by highlighting the effects of the era’s endemic want on observations of the psychological and cultural health of the nation. According to Richard Pells, the Depression brought a new sense of decomposition at every level of public and private life; there was no longer a belief, as there was in the Progressive Era, that economic development would solve social problems. The Depression was seen by many as a cosmic catastrophe beyond explanation. Society seemed to be literally falling apart, the world grown suddenly irrational and...

    (pp. 148-154)

    Richard wright’s autobiography highlights the crucial point of my study as a whole. The exploration of poverty as a critical category is not necessarily an argument that cultural definitions of identity are simply “displacements” of class issues.¹ Poverty is such a powerful tool of inquiry—in the hands of certain writers, at least—because of its “in between-ness” as a category of social being. We saw this demonstrated in the work of Herman Melville, for whom poverty comes to fuel something like minority consciousness. Conditions of restricted agency and a material lack of resources lead to a decodable and relatively...