From the Depths: The Discovery of Poverty in the United States

By Robert H. Bremner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
The Discovery of Poverty in Literature

There is a greater army,
That besets us round with strife,
A starving, numberless army,
At all the gates of life.

The poverty-stricken millions
Who challenge our wine and bread,
And impeach us all as traitors
Both the living and the dead.

HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW, The Challenge ( 1873).

There is more true romance in a New York tenement than there ever was in a baron's tower -- braver battles, truer loves, nobler sacrifices. Romance is all about us, but we must have eyes for it.

PAUL LEICESTER FORD, The Honorable Peter Stirling.

S OMETHING as old and omnipresent as poverty can hardly be said to have been discovered by writers at any particular time. It is just one of the elements the storyteller weaves into his tale along with birth and love and war and death. But the emphasis and approach to want vary with the writer, the social environment in which he lives, and the audience to whom his production is directed. Thus, in countless romances, old and new, poverty figures as the difference in economic status creating a temporary barrier to the mating of otherwise marriageable couples. It is the shadow from which heroes and heroines emerge by hook or crook or chance to lives of opulence and power. Scenes of humble life are frequently

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