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American Hungers

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

By Gavin Jones

About the Book

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.


"Jones persuasively argues that the time has come for literary theory to address the issue of poverty . . . in US literature. Rather than focusing on the cultural identities of the underprivileged, the author calls for a 'theory of poverty' that will highlight and address the political and social injustices associated with the economically disadvantaged. . . . Jones posits that the work of Herman Melville, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, James Agee, and Richard White most accurately portrays and foregrounds poverty. . . . His readings show how these writers succeeded in 'opening up the complexities and contradictions' of poverty, which contemporary literary theory fails to do. In short, Jones calls for a synthesis between discussion of race/gender/class and discussion of poverty, which often shapes identities within race, gender, and class categories."--B. M. McNeal, Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, for CHOICE