Thinking About the Poor   /   Fall 2014   /    Thinking About The Poor

Thinking About the Poor

A Bibliographical Essay

B.D. McClay and Leann Davis Alspaugh

Coal miners, Virginia, 1974; National Archives/Jack Corn; flickr.

A survey of classic texts on poverty, recent examinations of the working poor, poverty and race, and literature of the poor.

“The lower classes smell,” Eric Blair’s parents taught him as a child. The lesson stuck: By the time he recounted it in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), the writer who became known to the world as George Orwell had lived as a tramp in metropolitan London and worked as a dishwasher in Paris. (In fact, he wrote under that pen name to save his family the embarrassment of being related to someone who had gone slumming.) Yet Orwell still discerned within himself and his fellow socialists the workings of that prejudice. To the better off, Orwell knew, poverty was not only the lack of money; it also signified something repugnant, even a moral failing. So while he spent the first half of The Road to Wigan Pier exposing the shocking conditions of the working poor, he spent the second half exposing the prejudices of his fellow socialists.

Those socialists did not take kindly to The Road to Wigan Pier when it came out. (The book’s own publisher wrote a highly critical forward and would later reissue it only with the second half removed.) But Orwell’s discomfiting confession survives as a powerful reminder of how charged the discourse about poverty and the poor can be. There are countless books about the poor, and a goodly number devoted to the challenge of fixing poverty. They should all be read with Orwell’s words in mind.

  • George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1972).


To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).