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

Princeton University Press

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.

About the Author

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) investigates the craze for dialect among post-Civil War American writers, a craze that gave us Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and a host of other works that focus on the vernacular varieties of American English, stretching from Maine to Louisiana and beyond. Jones shows how this turn to dialect, rather than an act of regional nostalgia, translated cultural anxieties in a nation facing the challenges of increased immigration, urbanization, industrialization, and racial conflict. His second book, American Hungers: The Problem of Poverty in U.S. Literature, 1840-1945 (Princeton 2007), turns from culture to society by highlighting the ideological dilemmas created by the persistence of poverty amid American myths of mobility and success. Reading writers from Herman Melville in the antebellum era to Richard Wright in the Great Depression, Jones shows how literary discourse became a powerful means to understand the plight of the poor, hence placing poverty at the center of national debates about social justice, citizenship, and minority identity. His third book, Failure and the American Writer: A Literary History (Cambridge 2014) moves from the cultural and social concerns of the first two books to focus on the human self, particularly the feelings of personal failure that obsessed many nineteenth-century American authors. Jones notes the faltering styles, incoherent characters, and messy endings that run through even the best-known novels, and shows how, through these textual problems, American writers become the great theorists of failure. Ranging from Edgar Allan Poe to Sarah Orne Jewett, these writers found ways to translate their own insecurities into complex portrayals of a modern self, one founded in moral fallibility, precarious knowledge, and negative feelings.

In other projects, Jones has edited a new edition of the nation’s only “transcendental novel,” Sylvester Judd’s Margaret: A Tale of the Real and Ideal, Blight and Bloom (1845). He has published diverse essays, ranging in subject from antebellum “pro-slavery” novels to more recent diasporic writing by African American women. He has recently completed a fourth book manuscript, Race, Species, Planet: John Steinbeck's Curious Experiments, which explores Steinbeck's tremendous variety and complexity as a writer to establish Steinbeck -- beloved by general readers but reviled by literary critics -- as a timely if problematic thinker about issues ranging from ecological catastrophe to racial injustice and global inequality. Jones is planning to edit (with Michael Collins of King's College London) The Cambridge Companion to the American Short Story, and he is beginning a new monograph titled The Secret History of the Short Story.