Date of Award
Master of Arts
In his 2008 book, American Hungers: The Problem of Poverty in U.S. Literature, 1840-1945, Gavin Jones calls for academic studies of literature that examine poverty as its own actuality, worthy of discussion and definition despite its inherently polemical nature. As presented by Jones and tested here, American literature reveals how poverty is established, defined and understood; the anxieties of class; imperative connections with issues of gender and race; and the fictions of American democracy and the American Dream. This proves to be especially interesting when examining the 1890s. From a sociological standpoint, the eighteenth century's approach to poverty was largely moralistic, while the early parts of the nineteenth century moved toward acknowledging the impact of environmental and social factors. Literature itself was changing as a result of the realism and naturalism movements; the resulting popularity of local color and dialect writing and the exploding market for magazine fiction created access to and an audience for literature that discussed poverty in multifarious ways. Furthermore, New York proved to be an ideal setting - the influx of immigrants, the obvious problem of the slums, and the public's infatuation with those slums - and served as a catalyst for a diverse body of writing. Middle-class anxieties, especially, surfaced in this modern Babel. This study begins with a historical and sociological overview of the time period as well as an analysis of the problematic photography of the effective reformer Jacob Riis. Like Riis's photography, the cartoons of R.F. Outcault both challenge and subtly support stereotypes of poverty and serve as a reminder of the presence of poverty in day-to-day life and entertainment of turn-of-the-century New Yorkers. Stephen Crane's Maggie is discussed in depth, and his Tommie sketches are contrasted with the middle-class Whilomville Tales. These pieces have in common several unifying qualities: the centrality of the human body to the discussion of poverty, the failure of language for those in poverty, vision as a tool writers and artists lean heavily upon, and the awareness of multiple audiences within and without the text. Ultimately, the pieces return to the burdened bodies of small children - "the site that bears the marks, the damage, of being poor" (Jones American Hungers 3).
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