Originally published by n.b. a web project of the New York Review of Books
this earnest, engaging, but perhaps overly ambitious book, Earl Shorris
seeks to reconsider the current debates on poverty, race and class in America
from the standpoint of the poor. Shorris criss-crossed the country for several
years, listening to people tell their own stories and interpret their own
situations. New American Blues offers numerous moving vignettes,
mostly presented in the words of poor persons themselves, that together
provide an unsparing yet compassionate portrayal of just what it is like
to live below the poverty line in the United States at the end of the 20th
Shorris suggests a variety of definitions of poverty, but a principal concern is to get his subjects to say what it is for themselves. "Poor is a little girl who worked in the fields all day," says a South Bronx welfare mother born in Barbados. "Poor is too tired to eat...Poor is a house with no electricity. Poor is no water in the house." Alongside privation, there is dependency: "Even though I get welfare, it's not enough. What if they cut you off? What if the computer makes a mistake?" Shorris cobbles all these interpretations into the notion that the poor live within a "surround of force, deprived, coerced, and bound in various ways to institutions that ostensibly serve but in practice oppress the poor--"settlement houses, social welfare agencies, shelters, free clinics, gangs, minimum-wage jobs, drug programs, food pantries, soup kitchens. In the end, people are seen to be poor "when they concede they are poor, when there is no saving politics in their lives."
Shorris is also concerned in New American Blues to offer a remedy, classically political, philosophical and moral in scope, to the conundrums of poverty—a remedy that stands in contrast to the policy-oriented, economic nostrums that prevail today. He suggests instead a program to educate the poor in the classics of Western thought and culture, so as to empower them to reflect on their situation in political terms and take action to change it. The proposal is quixotic, perhaps, but nonetheless intriguing.
The final section of the book documents a pilot project of this sort that Shorris organized at a community center on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Using a curriculum modeled on Robert Hutchins's "Great Books" program at the University of Chicago, Shorris engaged volunteer faculty from various area colleges to teach the much-maligned "canon" of Western civilization to some two dozen welfare mothers, recovering addicts, ex-prisoners, and unemployed youth.
That this seems strange and new is a measure of how successful the neoconservative right has been in framing the poor as an "underclass" requiring control but unworthy and incapable of understanding. Shorris's view--the moral guidance and improvement of the poor, the changing of hearts and minds to inculcate reflection and self-control—is of course a venerable one, and on an individual level his experiment proved quite successful: nearly all of his students went on to college enrollment and/or full-time, stable work. He offers, however, only the vaguest indications of how, as he hopes, such particular successes might eventually encourage the collective action by which the poor can transform the "rules of the game."
Even so, the experiment seems worthy of replication on a far wider scale. As Shorris concludes, "Tens of thousands or even millions of poor people entering the public world may not endanger the established order at all. But the possibility that it could must perforce change the view of the poor held in America since the eighteenth century: the rest of the citizens would have to pay heed. Then the remaining poor might be spared some of the forces that make misery of their lives. And that, in turn, would make it easier for more of the poor to move out of the private life and into the public world, where all persons may think of themselves as having effect."
Fred Murphy is a writer living in New York City. He has studied and taught in the Committee on Historical Studies at the New School for Social Research.