September 2017

Cloaking the Poor: Reading and Representation in American Literature

The poor cannot be saved by respecting their cultural identity. What they need is money.

by Akiyoshi Suzuki

An identity-centric ethos often conceals the problem of poverty in literature. This is an agenda, criticized by those on the social left such as Frederic Jameson and Walter Benn Michaels, which we should keep in mind when talking about the poor. From the perspective of literary study, the issue of the poverty problem lies in the fact that the poor have tended not to be treated as victims of capitalism, but rather have been interpreted as having an oppressed identity—even in novels that propose a Marxist solution or that offer a dissenting view of capitalism. Consequently, the poor have been overlooked and capitalism gone unchallenged.

Michaels notes that “the problem of the poor is not the problem of a minority and is not the problem of the subject articulated through its relation to an oppressive norm.” And, because the poor “are victimized by capitalism rather than by ‘oppressive definitions of the subject,’” people committed to identity-centricism, whether writers or readers, “have tended more or less to ignore them.”[1] Further, respecting diversity is linked to identity-centricism and, according to Michaels, has brought about a fundamental failure in mutual understanding because people should respect differences, but are prohibited from denial or criticism of identity.[2] The poor, nevertheless, cannot be saved by respecting their cultural identity. What they need is money. Instead, they are overlooked on two levels: financial inequality is misread as primarily inequality of class, gender, race, and ethnicity; and the voice or protest of the poor is ignored due to respecting diversity.

The poor, nevertheless, cannot be saved by respecting their cultural identity. What they need is money.

WrightNativeSon
Richard Wright’s Native Son. Courtesy University of Toledo.

As argued below, American literary works have been cautious about the obsession with identity since the beginning of the 20th century. Ideology during and after the Cold War focused on identity. In the times when Lionel Trilling and others emphasized the universal values of liberalism and freedom against the background of the tension of the Cold War, novels celebrating these values triumphed over those committed to collectivism.[3] Novels that expect a Marxist solution, like Native Son (1940), gave an interpretation of them as stories of the American domestic problem of oppressed identity. It worked well as a strategy to break down an international association of the left.

The emphasis on individualism and liberalism did not lead intellectuals to be against capitalism, but rather led to a movement against totalitarianism, including domestic technocratic bureaucracy and conformism. In the 1960s and 70s, the disaster of the Vietnam war on behalf of anti-communism, diplomatic failure, and civil rights violations revealed the recognition that the individual is formed not in a mold of society ruled by the bureaucracy but by their own will—and that identity can be freely changed. The value of identity was supported by postmodern theories and influenced by French modern thinkers. They sympathized with Maoism and with the realization of the disasters of the Cultural Revolution. They transformed Maoism into a fundamental belief in the analysis of politics in daily life and oppressed identity with preservation of a thought of Maoist populism.[4] Supported by Susan Sontag’s proposition of sensibility in reading literature and by scholars’ desire to lift the scientific veil on literary study, French modern thought became popular in the study of literature and accelerated the focus on the problem of identity and diversity.

TheGreatGatsby_1925jacket
Cover art for The Great Gatsby. Courtesy Wikimedia.

In those times, novels cautious about identity-centricism and stories of the working class were misread, criticized or ignored by middle-class readers. The Great Gatsby (1926), a novel of the tragedy that happens when money is equated with class identity, was read as a story of men’s objectification of women. The novel, however, clearly describes both men’s and women’s obsession with having a good identity by maintaining a good appearance and their objectification of each other. It is true of Daisy as well; even she discriminates against the lower class.[5] This is the reason behind Gatsby betraying his origins as a poor peasant and later trying to take Daisy back from Tom by showing her his upper-class identity through his presentation and status symbols, and his life ends with his tragic death all the same. To have is to be a winner in a capitalist society. That cannot be recognized, however, without showing a bank account or cash itself. Other things, such as status symbols and an upper-class presentation, can be representative of a certain amount of money, and can simultaneously betray one’s origins. That is why Nick regards rich Cordy not as an upper-class man, but as “the pioneer debauchee” because he is a person “who during one phase of American life brought back to the Eastern seaboard the savage violence of the frontier brothel and saloon.”[6]

We should remember that Gatsby is set in prosperous times when people could conceal their origins by good appearances. This had a strong relation with the meaning of “nice” defined by a combination of social Darwinism, capitalism linked to the advertisement industry stemming from P.T. Barnum, and the cosmetics industry and plastic surgery that was developed for the reintegration of demobilized soldiers who suffered facial injuries in W.W.I. In 1921, one year before the setting of the novel, the first association meeting of plastic surgeons and the first Miss America contest were held in America.[7] This means that “for perhaps the first time on a national level,” good appearance was “a criterion” by which people “were judged and judge themselves.”[8] People were aware of how they looked and compared themselves to advertisements about good appearance. Daisy also defines Gatsby’s coolness as an advertisement, by saying that “You always look so cool…. You resemble the advertisement of the man.”[9] It is natural that the novel ends with the murder of Gatsby by the working class George Wilson outside the eyes of advertising in a society underneath the big eye of advertisement. Wilson says that the ad is “God’s eye” and “God sees everything” with a denial of Michaelis’ assurance “That’s an advertisement.”1[10]

To confirm the paradigm of the time, it is worthwhile here to pay attention to another literary text of the South—that is, in the region which was economically the opposite of the East at the time. Its exemplification is William Faulkner’s Soldiers’ Pay (1926). The protagonist, Donald Mahon, was shot in the head by an enemy military plane in W.W.I. When he returns to his hometown, his somewhat different face shocks people. He, however, lives without any plastic surgery or a return to work. Mahon, who is blind, does not objectify others like the characters in Gatsby. Unlike the East, where Gatsby moved, the South could not reap the fruits of prosperity during the postwar period. The differences of appearance and life between Gatsby and Mahon represent the economic inequality of the different regions.

absalom-absalom
Absalom, Absalom! cover art. Courtesy Deep Art Nature.

A tragedy that can happen when money is equated with class identity is also true of the life of Clyde Griffith, an Easterner in An American Tragedy (1925). Like Gatsby, Griffith was attracted to an upper-class woman and was ruined because of his ambition to achieve the American dream. Sister Carrie (1900) is a female analog. Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! (1936) also lives a tragic life. He was born poor in West Virginia but migrated to Mississippi in search of wealth. He was, however, criticized for his origins. It drove him to live a life of the upper class in the South: owing a dynasty and slaves, marrying a white woman, and having a white son and heir. His obsession led him to renounce his previous mixed race marriage, which ultimately led to the undoing of his white family.[11]

Henry Miller’s novels were also criticized by middle-class readers who were careful about oppressed identity. Many protagonists of Miller’s novels are represented by the poor. They do not care about wealth or class, however. They are against the fetishization of capitalism and hate to identify themselves with anything because they think that identity is an essential part of capitalism and commodity fetishism, and thus feel happy with a life of “non-identity.”[12] The novels of some African American women, such as Ann Petry, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lorraine Hansberry, who focused on the poor, have been much less popular than that of authors like Toni Morrison, who focus attention on community, affiliation, and norms. The voice of the poor on their own terms is easily overlooked.

Nowadays, the poor are attacked insomuch as they are lazy and even inconvenience others in a neoliberal society where it is assumed that oppression-free-identity might be theoretically achieved.

Leestringer
Author Lee Stringer in 2004. Courtesy Wikimedia.

Nowadays, the poor are attacked insomuch as they are lazy and even inconvenience others in a neoliberal society where it is assumed that oppression-free-identity might be theoretically achieved. Luck or accident are overlooked; poverty is ascribed to a personal laziness and responsibility.  In particular, the homeless poor, or lumpenproletariat, are excluded by the use of the neoliberal military rhetoric of waging “war” on crime and “recapturing” public space, a rhetoric that likens criminals to “foreign invaders.”[13] Besides, the poor are also defined by their presentation or identification, because they, like the rich, cannot be recognized without showing of a bank account. Lee Stringer explains how homeless folks are disempowered in Grand Central Winter (1998), an autobiographic novel. The protagonist says that “The homeless aren’t the only street people,” arguing that “Cops are, too, in a sense.” “Metro North police” he writes, “outlawed all activities peculiar to homeless people. ‘Loitering,’ panhandling, garbage browsing, and sleeping became grounds for expulsion or, in some cases, deliberately rough-handed arrest.” The poor, by virtue of being poor, transgress.[14]

What Stringer views as a problem echoes in the actions of his character, Walter Benn Michaels, who overlooks the poor due to identity-centricism and lack of mutual understanding. The protagonist realizes:

Veteran straphangers seldom speak to strangers on the subway. We let our clothes do the talking. We do this sort of thing year-round, and not only on the subway—most often to convey something about status. You might have twenty, thirty grand in the bank, or an eight-hundred-dollar wad riding on your hip, but only you will know it. … But most of us are left to jockey for position with status symbols that are woefully entry level. … And the miracle of the daily cold war of travelling mass transit.[15]

Obsession with identity brings about “cold war,” which prevents mutual understanding. People, of course, ignore the poor because it is as if they are “a part of the landscape.”[16] Even when some communicate with the poor, they misunderstand the poverty problem: they read a social study or “plead righteous compassion for the plight of the homeless.”[17] The protagonist confesses, “the most important thing I learned from living on the street” is that “Nobody listens to them. That’s why they talk to me. Because I’m only one who listens to them. But I wanted to do more than listen. And I decided to make it official, with Shepherd of the Streets, Inc.”[18] And then, he started being in charge of a Q & A column in Street News to respond to people’s letters and “stir up any significant ruckus,”[19] like Michaels insists.[20] By doing that and by writing a book about what he did, or by stopping the identity-centric situation of restrained diversity, Stringer tries to make people recognize the poor and brings about a discussion regarding “our story.” He writes “This, in part, is our story,” and “to an extent it” is “also true of America in the eighties.”[21] In a sense, the book also epitomizes the divided, identitarian situation of the U.S. today.

We must become more than the atomized, individualized identities that have become all too common in American literature.

Unfortunately, readers of the novel tend to regard the protagonist as a hero who makes his own effort to overcome his miserable situation. His is a triumphant identity that overcomes undeserving ones. Such a reading places the novel in the American tradition of Benjamin Franklin, or justifies the capitalism of today which suppresses the poor. What we should do is listen to the voice (or literally read the texts) of the poor as the victims of capitalism and find a space of mutual understanding to circumvent the tragedy of identity-centricism. We must become more than the atomized, individualized identities that have become all too common in American literature.

IMG_3996Dr. Akiyoshi Suzuki is Professor of American and comparative literature at the Department of Intercultural Studies at Nagasaki University. He has served in various positions such as Editorial Committee of the International Association for East-West Studies. His recent books and articles are Culture and Empire: From Shakespeare to Antonio Negri (joint), Yokohama: Shumpusha, 2016; The Future of English in Asia: Perspectives on Language and Literature (joint), New York: Routledge, 2015; “Reading a Contemporary Lumpenproletariat’s Autobiography: On Lee Stringer’s Grand Central Winter” in Akiyoshi Suzuki et al. (eds.), A Toast to Dr. Johnson: Essays on British and American Literature, Tokyo: Tsurumi Shoten, 2016.

Notes

[1] Walter Benn Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 180-81. Also, see Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, (New York: Holt, 2006), 85-86, 89.

[2] Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier, 80-81.

[3] As Morris Dickstein points out, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is “one of the ur-texts of postwar fiction,” followed by On the Road (1951), The Catcher in the Rye (1951), The Adventure of Augie March (1953) and others. Morris Dickstein, Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction, 1945-1970 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 90.

[4] Regarding this argument, see Richard Wolin, The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[5] As for Daisy’s discrimination of the poor, see F. Scott Fitzgerald, Great Gatsby (Penguin, 1978), 24, 114.

[6] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 92.

[7] Elizabeth Haiken, Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1999), 19-43. Lois W. Banner, American Beauty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 205.

[8] Haiken, Venus Envy, 43.

[9] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 110.

[10] Ibid., 166.

[11] Many scholars also have been cautious about an identity-centric ethos in the U.S. Tocqueville already acknowledged about 150 years ago that competitive spirit under the name of democracy reinforced an anxiety to outdo others. Unlike European in aristocratic society, according to Jack Solomon, American in democratic society has no innate feature to signify status. This reinforces Americans to get material as a status symbol by which they are acknowledged as a person who achieved social success. Jack Solomon, The Sign of Our Times. Semiotics: The Hidden Message of Environments, Objects, and Cultural Images (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1988), 62-63.

[12] “Non-identity” is the term used by Adorno. See Akiyoshi Suzuki, “Understanding Henry Miller’s Literary Text as “the Poor’s”: For Interpretation of Miller’s Literary Text from the Viewpoint of Non-Identity, or After-Theory,” Delta  7 (2010): 1-22.

[13] Loic Wacquant, Prisons of Poverty, expanded edition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 19.

[14] Lee Stringer, Grand Central Winter: Stories from the Street (New York: Washington Square Press, 1998), 196, 54.

[15] Ibid., 216–17.

[16] Ibid., 186.

[17] Ibid., 142.

[18] Ibid., 95-96.

[19] Ibid., 111.

[20] Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier, 80-81. Nancy Frazer notes that the poor need to be recognized not as a particular group identity but as partners in social interaction. Nancy Frazer, “Rethinking Recognition,” New Left Review 3 (May/June, 2000): 113.

[21] Stringer, Grand Central Winter, 9.

Bibliography

Banner, Lois W. American Beauty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Dickstein, Morris. Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction, 1945-1970. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Penguin, 1978.

Frazer, Nancy. “Rethinking Recognition.” New Left Review 3 (May/June, 2000): 107-20.

Haiken, Elizabeth. Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Michaels, Walter Benn. The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

―――. The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. New York: Holt, 2006.

Solomon, Jack. The Sign of Our Times. Semiotics: The Hidden Message of Environments, Objects, and Cultural Images. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1988.

Stringer, Lee. Grand Central Winter: Stories from the Street. New York: Washington Square Press, 1998.

Suzuki, Akiyoshi. “Understanding Henry Miller’s Literary Text as “the Poor’s”: For Interpretation of Miller’s Literary Text from the Viewpoint of Non-Identity, or After-Theory.” Delta  7 (2010): 1-22.

Wacquant, Loic. Prisons of Poverty. Expanded edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Wolin, Richard. The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

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1 comment on “Cloaking the Poor: Reading and Representation in American Literature

  1. Pingback: Understanding the Scourge of Severe Poverty – The Activist History Review

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