The Book Case: Rich Insight About the Poor

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All students of public policy, par­ticularly policy toward the poor, the “ deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor,” will profit from the chapters on the poor law and on what Himmelfarb rightly calls “the politicization of the poor” in her book. In her penetrating chapter on Chartism she illuminates the “ paradox” of that movement: its failure in reception of its specific demands, and therefore its seeming bankruptcy, but its long-run success in generating “a self- consciousness among a large part of the working classes, a sense of common cause.” The People’s Charter, Himmel­farb concludes, proposed to bring the poor into history.“ This was as far as they could get from the lowly ‘natural’ status to which Malthus had relegated them.” The poor law had effectively mobilized the working poor into some degree of collective consciousness, and the early generation of radicals in England had helped equally by “restor­ing laborers and paupers alike to a single society of the poor.”

There are fascinating glimpses not only of the lives of the principals in the book but also of the kinds of folk they wrote and orated about. We are brought too into touch, often delightfully, with the popular culture of the age. Most of us are familiar enough with the attacks by many artists and intellectuals on the machine—William Blake’s “ Dark Satanic Mills.” But it is nice to be reminded that even among poets there could be verses written, to appear on a tombstone in the cloister of Ely Cathedral, in which not only the railroad itself was accepted as apt metaphor for ascent to heaven, but also its three classes, first, second, and third, were taken over for the celestial journey: “All you who would to Glory ride/Must come to Christ, in him abide/In First and Secon,/and Third Class, Repentance, Faith, and Holiness. . .Come then poor Sinners, now’s the time/ At any Station on the line."

It was in the second part of the age dealt with in The Idea of Poverty that the language of social class began to flourish. Until industrialism began to spread, and with it the language of assault and defense of the machine, class had simply a generic reference to kind and category. But lower class, middle class, and upperclass were widely used by the middle of the 19th century. More and more, the traditional unities of family, parish, and village were subordinated in writing to the nomenclature of class. And, as is usually the case, public policy and plan­ning followed rhetoric. So does it in large measure to this day.

It is one of the delights of this book that the author goes to the fiction of the age. Almost all levels of society in England read voraciously. Their own in­terests in the poor around them were gratified by the interests not only of the greater novelists of the day, such as Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, but of the literally dozens of best-selling writers whose names have long since disappeared from lists. Dickens was in­deed popular, but not as popular, as Him­melfarb notes, as such forgotten wor­thies as Ainsworth, Reynolds, and J. F. Smith.

Not by any means were the poor always sentimentalized. One Ernest Jones, popular among poor as well as middle-class readers, wrote of workers more brutal to wives and children in their homes than were factory owners to them. In successive chapters on “ the Newgate poor,” “ the Gothic poor,” and “ the Dickensian poor” Himmelfarb lights up, as has no one else to my per­sonal knowledge, the degree to which the poor, including the most repulsive, whether by ingrained villainy or the dreadful squalor and moral degradation of their lives, captivated the sense and sensibility of the vast reading public.

Dickens’s place was of course unique. We read of a Nonconformist minister who told his flock: “ There have been at work among us three great social agen­cies: the London City Mission, the novels of Mr. Dickens, and the cholera.” And Daniel Webster probably didn’t exag­gerate when, during Dickens’s visit to America in 1842, he declaimed that Dickens had done more to “ ameliorate the conditions of the English poor than all the statesmen Great Britain had sent to Parliament.”

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