Literary Visions of the Poor

Literary Visions of the Poor

The “common people,” Walt Whitman observed in 1871, are too often “degraded, humiliated, made of no account.” American democracy must uplift “the specimens and vast collections of the ignorant, the credulous, the unfit and uncouth, the incapable, and the very low and poor.” Profound social change, according to Whitman, can promise new hope for American democracy, “with a more universal ownership of property, general homesteads, general comfort—a vast, intertwining reticulation of wealth.”

The development of American literary realism and naturalism often reflects the eclipse of Whitman’s hope for “general comfort” and “universal ownership of property.” In 1906 Upton Sinclair described the daily roundup of homeless beggars from the streets of Chicago: “[In] the detention hospital you might see them, herded together in a miniature inferno, with hideous beastly faces, bloated and leprous with disease, laughing, shouting, screaming in all stages of drunkenness, barking like dogs, gibbering like apes, raving and tearing themselves in delirium.” Sinclair’s hero-victim in The Jungle, Jurgis Rudkus, is tossed out to the “city’s cesspools” since he “had lost in the fierce battle of greed, and so was doomed to be exterminated.” Thirty-five years after Whitman’s passionate plea for an equalizing “mission of government,” Sinclair testified to the persistent gap between social extremes.

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