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
"Gavin Jones's American Hungers tackles a one-hundred-year period, treating a vast range of texts with great theoretical sophistication. This ambitious book aims to make poverty as powerful an analytical tool as race and gender have proven in recent critical history."--Michael Robertson, American Literature
"Jones's readings are detailed and richly informed, and his discussions of the social-scientific background--the shift from moral to biological to psychological explanations of poverty--provide a valuable history, one that should interest critics regardless of their stance toward identity politics."--Twentieth Century Literature
"The main and considerable strength of Jones's book is its theoretical contribution, which is located in the introduction. The body of the volume also makes intriguing, if not always completely persuasive, arguments."--Michael Tavel Clarke, American Quarterly
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Walter Benn Michaels, Series Editor