How Literature Understands Poverty
American Literature
Deadline: 
Thursday, October 1, 2020

This special issue examines the role of literature and criticism in addressing poverty and dispossession. In a 2009 Inside Higher Ed op-ed, Keith Gandal predicted that the economic crisis would lead to literary studies finally putting “poverty near the top of the agenda and the center of the field.” Ten years later, poverty has become a focus of scholarship in the social sciences, particularly geography, anthropology, sociology, and critical legal studies. Yet the topic remains stubbornly marginal to literary studies, even though qualitative social scientific methods have been taken up in the discipline as never before. This special issue addresses this oversight by asking what literature and criticism distinctively have to offer to an understanding of poverty and impoverished communities in the United States and abroad. What theories and methods of reading does literature about poverty demand? What language for talking about poverty does literature provide? In turn, what kinds of demands and pressures do efforts to address poverty, dispossession, and extreme economic inequality place on literary form and language?

In the United States, the contradictions of poverty are especially acute: while the nation has the world’s highest GDP, a 2018 United Nations report found that more than 40 million Americans live in poverty, almost half of those in “extreme poverty.” More than 50 million more live in near poverty. As a settler colonial state, the United States was founded on the material dispossession of whole populations. More recently, mechanisms of asset stripping among already beleaguered communities have expanded under the neoliberal logics of development and accumulation. State governments have subjected the most vulnerable populations to more extractive and less accountable schemes of privatized exploitation, as economic disparities have dovetailed with racial, ethnic, and gender hierarchies. In the face of these exacerbating conditions of impoverishment, Americanist literary scholarship has retrenched somewhat. Class representation feels less urgent than other issues, and where class is addressed at all, it is often treated as a static category of analysis, separated from dynamics of dispossession along lines of race, gender, and nationality. Elsewhere, scholarship on racial capitalism, settler colonialism, neoliberalism, and necropolitics has shed valuable light on socioeconomic and geopolitical structures whose operative effects produce impoverishment. Yet much of this work remains silent about poverty as a lived and represented experience and as a category of aesthetic production and interpretation. Bucking that trend, this special issue foregrounds poverty as a primary category of literary study. We seek articles that model a range of approaches to probing economic, racial, and social contradictions endemic to capitalist accumulation as a special problem of representation as such.

Fifty years since Oscar Lewis popularized the term “culture of poverty,” we ask what it would mean for literary scholars to treat poverty not as an object of sociological examination but as a subject of artistic and cultural inquiry in its own right. In what ways does our discomfort with this subject invite us to reflect on our own prevailing methodological assumptions and thematic avoidances? In other words, what can be gained from revisiting poverty in the literary imagination, both in terms of generating an understanding beyond its social scientific definition and as a site for self-inquiry into the practice of literary scholarship?

In the spirit of that pivot, this special issue seeks to revise and reimagine the category of poverty itself. It follows recent work that attends to the productive dilemmas of representation that this category highlights. Gavin Jones’s American Hungers: The Problem of Poverty in U.S. Literature, 1840-1945 (2007) suggests that poverty has not been more widely represented in literary criticism because the treatment of material deprivation as having cultural and aesthetic value poses ethical and representational dilemmas. Keith Gandal, author of The Virtues of the Vicious: Jacob Riis, Stephen Crane and the Spectacle of the Slum (1997) and Class Representation in Modern Fiction and Film (2007), and Walter Benn Michaels, author of The Trouble with Diversity (2007), agree with Jones that the problem of economic privation in US literature has been subsumed by the language of identity. Michael Denning argues in “Representing Global Labor” (2007) and “Wageless Life” (2010) for reassessing the categories of labor and class to account for global poverty, precarity, and unemployment. In this special issue, we seek articles that will contribute to these reassessments. What counts as the literature of “poverty”? How can analyses of literary and other aesthetic representations of poverty complement, complicate, and even challenge social scientific approaches? How might we extend poverty as an analytic to incorporate dispossession more broadly and to connect poverty to other forms of imperial and economic displacement, conquest, and exploitation?

Submissions of 11,000 words or less (including endnotes and references) should be submitted electronically at www.editorialmanager.com/al/default.asp by October 1, 2020. When choosing a submission type, select “Submission-Special Issue-Poverty.” For assistance with the submission process, please contact the office of American Literature at am-lit@duke.edu or (919) 684-3396. For inquiries about the content of the issue, please contact the coeditors: Clare Callahan (callahanc5@sacredheart.edu), Joseph Entin (jentin@brooklyn.cuny.edu), Irvin Hunt (ijh@illinois.edu), and Kinohi Nishikawa (kinohin@princeton.edu).

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