Poverty Studies

While literary scholars have good reason to study race, gender and sexuality, too many ignore the economically struggling, writes Keith Gandal.

June 29, 2009

One favorable outcome of the current economic crisis might be that literary studies finally puts poverty near the top of the agenda and the center of the field. A few years ago, Hurricane Katrina reminded the nation about Americans living in poverty, and it seemed then, to some of us in literary studies who write about poverty, a possible turning point in critical priorities. But it was not to be. Though important work from literary critics on the subject of the poor has come out since then, especially Gavin Jones’s American Hungers (2007) and Walter Benn Michaels’s The Trouble with Diversity (2007), it is perhaps not surprising that the suffering of the poor, even when it temporarily comes to light spectacularly, is not enough to prompt such a major change of direction in the professional discourse.

The engine of “cultural studies” has incredible momentum, and there is a concomitant tendency for the cultural or identity issues of race, gender, sexuality, and even class to subordinate that of poverty. To take just one example, a 2007, post-Katrina book, published by a major university press and called Slumming in New York, can nearly wipe away the poverty problem in New York in the 19th century in a single sentence unsupported by historical evidence: the author writes, “Unlike many European cities, New York in the 19th century promoted itself as a city free from rigid economic class distinctions. In some ways I believe this was true and that the more destructive conflict was fought over cultural legitimacy and representation.”

One of the reasons that the important issues of race, gender, and sexuality have had such traction in English departments is of course that English departments have numerous professors who have suffered and indeed continue to experience racial, gender, and sexual-preference discrimination or prejudice, and so the profession’s investment in the issues is not merely academic. Meanwhile, English departments have had very few tenured professors who have come out of poverty and, by definition one might have supposed, none who were still living in poverty — literary-critical poverty studies has had almost no “insider” advocates. Or at least such was the case until the current economic crisis. While tenure-track professors may not be experiencing true poverty, many are facing furloughs and pay and benefit cuts that will indeed have a real impact on their standards of living. And adjuncts – some of whom are indeed living in poverty – are losing positions all over the country.

Now that acute socioeconomic suffering has hit home or threatens to hit home among university faculty -- not only English Department instructors and adjuncts, but even some tenure-track and tenured professors are facing or anticipating economic difficulties that make the poverty issue less academic, less other.

This is a terrible moment for many people, and it has reminded many of us, in the most painful way, that socioeconomic suffering is not merely the others’ problem. Let’s take this crisis as an opportunity to put poverty on the front burner in our profession, along with race and gender.

Such a change may be especially possible now, given also, during the same moment, the election of the nation’s first African-American president. At this historical conjuncture, it is apparent that the nation has made progress on the problem of racial discrimination that it has not made on that of socioeconomic privation. And yet, of course, these problems are related, and blacks still suffer from poverty out of proportion to their numbers in the population.

We English professors might take a hint from other disciplines. The day after the election, sociology professor Orlando Patterson of Harvard University discussed on television the public triumph of the first African-American president-elect and the continuing private or social isolation of poor African Americans (he talked, for example, about de facto school segregation, more intense than the segregation that existed in the 1970s, and disproportionately high rates of incarceration for blacks).

We might also take a cue from the writers we study and teach. As Gavin Jones has reminded us, many of our great American writers, black and white, women and men, have been concerned with poverty in the United States, including Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Richard Wright, and James Agee. And, I would add, some of the great American writers who wrote about the poor have in addition come out of poverty, such as Jacob Riis, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Claude Brown.

English departments have done tremendous social good by methodically studying issues of race, gender, and sexuality, good that has gone even beyond raising consciousness and changing attitudes among students; they have also made it a priority to hire minorities, women, and gays and lesbians. Can we English professors make similar contributions to addressing the ongoing poverty problem? Can we take a leading role in promoting poverty studies and affirmative action for the economically disadvantaged? Poverty is a problem, of course, that won’t go away when this economic crisis has passed, but this crisis might leave the literary profession more connected to it.


Keith Gandal, professor of English at Northern Illinois University, is the author of The Virtues of the Vicious: Jacob Riis, Stephen Crane, and the Spectacle of the Slum (Oxford University Press).


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