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

About the Author

Gavin Jones

Gavin Jones is the Frederick P. Rehmus Family Professor of the Humanities at Stanford University. He specializes in American literature of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. With a B.A. from Oxford University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton University, he also held a three-year fellowship in Harvard University’s Society of Fellows before coming to Stanford in 1999 as an assistant professor.

His three published books explore the power of literature to embody complex social problems and to uncover difficult ideas that often remain hidden in the culture at large. His first book, Strange Talk: The Politics of Dialect Literature in Gilded Age America (California 1999)...

Princeton University Press
2007

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.