Book review: Poverty books — 1985 — “The American Millstone: An examination of the nation’s permanent underclass” by the staff of the Chicago Tribune
March 9, 2017
Book review: “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door” by Barbara Mahany
March 13, 2017
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Six Poverty Books

In the past couple weeks, I’ve posted reviews of six books about people living in poverty, published between 1890 and 1986 — nearly a century’s worth.

Below are the books with links to the reviews.

But, first, a few observations from my reading of the books:

  • Poor people are people. They have full lives with the full range of human emotions.       They are not a breed apart.       They are us.
  • Poverty is no fun. It’s a complicated, stress-filled existence.
  • Personal choices have an important impact on an individual life and can be a factor in that person living in poverty. Yet, even more important is the machinery of society and the economy which builds in a greater or lesser amount of unemployment and provides greater or lesser access to opportunities through education and housing.

Here are the books with an excerpt:

 

1890 — How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis:

“How the Other Half Lives was a major milestone in journalism, in photojournalism and in social reform. Riis’s text, often overlooked, is hard-edged and filled with a barely restrained anger. His photos show every crooked board, every crack in the plaster, every smudge and detail of the rooms where poor families and individuals lived and often worked and of the buildings and neighborhoods in which they spent their days. These images were startling and unsettling.   And what was most startling and unsettling about them were the highly distinctive faces —- the individual faces — of this Italian and that tough, of this Jewish child and that Street Arab, of this sleeping laborer and that drunken woman.”

 

1902 — The People of the Abyss by Jack London:

“Where Jack London falls short in The People of the Abyss is in depicting the life of the poor as unrelentingly depressing and dehumanizing. In this, he tumbles into the same trap that has ensnared other middle- and upper-class writers who came before and after him.”

 

1929-1930 — Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell:

“Yet, in this book about his own experience living in extreme poverty over the course of more than three months in late 1929 and early 1930, Orwell makes again and again the strikingly obvious point: that the poor are human beings, just like the rest of us.”

 

1936 — Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee with photos by Walker Evans:

“There are many ways to approach Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the majestic, mystical and often maddening book that James Agee and Walker Evans published in 1941. I’m going to look at it here through the lens of journalism — how it subverts and critiques journalism as practiced in the United States. It is a book that subverts journalism, even as it reaches — strains achingly — to create a new journalism. It’s journalism as art. But not the sort of art that Agee is at pains to criticize through his book. The art that he is striving to create.”

 

1936 — The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell:

“Orwell asserts that there are hundreds of thousands of people like the Brookers in the working classes — people without aspirations, without real thought, even. People who have been constrained so tightly by circumstances and a lack of possibilities that they are more like placeholders than agents of their own destiny. These people, he states, are byproducts of the modern industrial world, adding, ‘You can’t disregard them if you accept the civilization that produced them.’ In other words, society, as a whole, bears some responsibility for these people and the dead-ends they find everywhere they turn.”

 

1985 — The American Millstone: An examination of the nation’s permanent underclass by the staff of the Chicago Tribune:

“Although the Tribune caught a lot of flak during the three months The American Millstone dominated the newspaper’s pages, I have to say that the stories and the series hold up. The American Millstone was an honorable, well-meaning, courageous, insightful, accurate and important effort to look at a national problem that was confronting policymakers who were often tempted to ignore the issue or sidestep its implications.”

 

Patrick T. Reardon

3.13.17

 

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