Himmelfarb's Culture of Poverty and Hopkins's "Poor Jackself." (on Gertrude Himmelfarb's 'The Idea of Poverty', Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Article excerpt

The admonition by Fredric Jameson(1) to the effect that in confronting authors from an earlier period we should "always historicize" generally registers as cogent and convincing. Even inveterate formalists seem willing to place the literary work back into the presumedly rich loam of the historical moment in which it was originally grounded. However, we may not always know how to begin historicizing. If history includes everything that has occurred from the creation until this very moment, what elements from that huge bolus of the past are we to connect with a literary work which has aroused our interest but eluded our hermeneutical skills? Where is the history to be found by means of which we are to begin historicizing?

The usual historicizing procedure is to identify a hermeneutical problem in our experience of a literary work and then to turn for a solution to historiology (what happened) or historiography (written traces of what happened). Thus, we regularly solve a problem such as the intentional theme of a text - e.g., Dickens' Hard Times - by reference to a historical context, e.g., Utilitarian philosophy. When skillfully used, this regressive method may prove useful, if rather too mechanical and often employed too complacently. An alternative procedure, a less regressive procedure, would be, first, to study some part of history, such as the development of modern social thought, and only then to inquire about literary works that such historiography might problematize and elucidate. That is, we should begin with the historian.

Myron Magnet's recent work on the economic underclasses in the late twentieth century grew out of his work on Dickens and the social order.(2) Magnet's analysis, interesting and relevant in itself, generously reminds us of a more important intellectual historian in our midst. Gertrude Himmelfarb's writings on Lord Acton, Darwin, J. S. Mill, and other seminal Victorian intellects, as well as her speculations on historiography itself, establish for her a preeminent reputation. Himmelfarb's The Idea of Poverty (1983) provides literary interpreters with a massive account of a Victorian ideology of poverty that shapes the social thought of its own day and our own day. Given the solid reputation of The Idea of Poverty as a ground-breaking description and analysis of a "moral imagination" that informs Victorian and post-Victorian speculation about a sociopolitical ideology of the poor, we might well inquire as to what hermeneutical problem in literary history The Idea of Poverty might help us first to recognize and then to confront.(3)

Tracing the allied concepts of poverty and the poor from 1750 to 1850, Himmelfarb succeeds in reconstructing the processes - social, political, economic - by which the Victorians recognized and coped with a massive historical problem in part by submitting numerous socioeconomic facts to the pressures of a "moral imagination." Himmelfarb's presentation takes into account four related historical processes: (1) how poverty came to be redefined in the processes of a paradigm shift from moral philosophy to political economy, (2) how the New Poor Law of the 1830s precipitated a frenzied period of reform and dissent, (3) how researchers such as Henry Mayhew explored the "undiscovered country" of the urban poor and therein either discovered or induced a "culture of poverty," and (4) how literary works - chiefly novels - variously represented the Victorian poor. Himmelfarb's representation of Victorian poverty will be offered here as a starting point from which a literary interpreter can initiate a search for increased critical understanding of imaginative literature.

In describing an emerging socioeconomic ideology, The Idea of Poverty presents the critic of Victorian literature with a rhetoric, a discourse, and, preeminently, a vocabulary of socioeconomic issues and processes. A mere listing of some elements of Himmelfarb's vocabulary provides insight into her sociohistorical analysis of the rise of one Victorian mode of thought. …