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

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

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

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


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 for American 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 Hungers masterfully brings poverty into the mainstream critical idiom.


The purpose of this book is to redress the neglect of poverty as a category of critical discourse in the study of American literature and culture. Despite its prominence as a subject in the social sciences, poverty has remained unfocused in literary studies that privilege the cultural identity of the marginalized. It has been de-emphasized in accounts of the class consciousness of workers, and obscured by critical methodologies designed to deconstruct such monolithic ideas as “the poor.” Scholars have largely overlooked the complexity of poverty as a subject of representation that runs throughout U.S. literature, rather than a subject that congregates in a particular literary period, movement, or genre, or that preoccupies a single writer. There may no longer be the “poverty of theory” in American studies scholarship that Robert Sklar noted in 1975. But there has been little theory of poverty, and thus virtually no critical and theoretical framework to situate literary works that have grappled with the ethical, cultural, and linguistic difficulties of poverty as a substantive category of social being.

American Hungers is not an exhaustive literary history of writing about poverty in the United States (an undertaking far beyond the scope of a single study) but an attempt to revise our critical idiom by offering fresh ways to view both established and less established texts. Recent scholarship has made powerful cases for the work of previously neglected writers, as pressing concerns with race, ethnicity, gender, and (to a lesser extent) class have recovered a vast range of material. Yet too often analyses of writing by or about the socially marginalized have referenced poverty with little sense of the ideological battles surrounding it; poverty has remained a vaguely descriptive term and not a dynamic category that develops structurally and thematically across textual space. What is needed now, I believe, is an unlocalized critical language that helps us see how poverty, as a fused social . . .

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