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Hunger: A Modern History / Edition 1

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Overview

Hunger is as old as history itself. Indeed, it appears to be a timeless and inescapable biological condition. And yet perceptions of hunger and of the hungry have changed over time and differed from place to place. Hunger has a history, which can now be told.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, hunger was viewed as an unavoidable natural phenomenon or as the fault of its lazy and morally flawed victims. By the middle of the twentieth century, a new understanding of hunger had taken root. Across the British Empire and beyond, humanitarian groups, political activists, social reformers, and nutritional scientists established that the hungry were innocent victims of political and economic forces outside their control. Hunger was now seen as a global social problem requiring government intervention in the form of welfare to aid the hungry at home and abroad. James Vernon captures this momentous shift as it occurred in imperial Britain over the past two centuries.

Rigorously researched, Hunger: A Modern History draws together social, cultural, and political history in a novel way, to show us how we came to have a moral, political, and social responsibility toward the hungry. Vernon forcefully reminds us how many perished from hunger in the empire and reveals how their history was intricately connected with the precarious achievements of the welfare state in Britain, as well as with the development of international institutions, such as the United Nations, committed to the conquest of world hunger. All those moved by the plight of the hungry will want to read this compelling book.

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Editorial Reviews

The Times

Vernon has put together a persuasive and wide-ranging history of hunger. His central tenet that hunger is not a natural catastrophe—it emerges into public view within historical contexts and for precise political reasons—is compelling.
— Joanna Bourke

Geoff Eley
A work of exciting originality that uses hunger to challenge our essential ideas about the history of the welfare state and of democracy and citizenship in twentieth-century Britain. This is a very major book.
Philippa Levine
A lively and engaging study that demonstrates how hunger is as much a historical condition as it is a biological one. Elegant, intelligent, and ambitious, it will be widely read and admired.
Gareth Stedman Jones
Hunger: A Modern History moves impressively between the British domestic and political, the colonial and the global, without straining the argument or losing touch with the sources. James Vernon's research ranges over vast tracts of material, demonstrating concretely and graphically how discussion about famine originating in nineteenth-century India became central to discussion about nutrition in twentieth-century Britain.
Bruce Robbins
This is history writing of the most jolting and publicly significant kind.
The Times - Joanna Bourke
Vernon has put together a persuasive and wide-ranging history of hunger. His central tenet that hunger is not a natural catastrophe--it emerges into public view within historical contexts and for precise political reasons--is compelling.
Financial Times - Martin Hoyle
This survey of British attitudes towards hunger is no mere liberal guilt-inducer...The book ends in the 1940s with glances forward to Thatcher, Tebbit, and Blair. Its range is political, sociological, and media-aware: "Tell the bastards!" says a 1930s documentary film-maker. Scholarly and unjudgmental, the book does.
Nature - Michael Sargent
Hunger is a thought-provoking book. Sharply focused and tightly argued.
The Age - Steven Carroll
Charts, in great detail, the way hunger was constructed in the 19th century as something that the lazy and spineless brought upon themselves and how this perception changed in the 20th century with the emergence of the welfare state. Hunger may well be the subject of the book but in many ways it is the site for a discussion of the claims of market-based liberalism and social democracy and the way both camps depicted the very welfare state that, among other things, sought to eliminate malnutrition.
Lancet - Richard Barnett
This tension--between the global and the local, the high-calorie west and the hungry rest--lies at the heart of Hunger: A Modern History. Historian James Vernon's widely acknowledged grasp of political history from the ground up brings depth and discernment to this compellingly argued and cogently written book. Vernon aims to provide a history of hunger in the UK and the British Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, beginning with the pomp and circumstance of the 1851 Great Exhibition aand ending with the cheerful austerity of the 1951 Festival of Britain. He uses changing British responses to hunger as a window on the rise of new forms of civil society and social welfare, and as a way to explore another recurring theme in his work--the question of responsibility. Who was to blame for hunger, and who could be expected to relieve it?...This eye for both sides of a debate makes Hunger: A Modern History both acutely moving and, in the main, profoundly persuasive...Hunger: A Modern History is politically engaged history at its most humane, and Vernon uses his compassion and erudition to drive home a deeply disquieting truth. In the secular, postmodern west, hunger is perhaps the closest we get to guilt.
Financial Times

This survey of British attitudes towards hunger is no mere liberal guilt-inducer...The book ends in the 1940s with glances forward to Thatcher, Tebbit, and Blair. Its range is political, sociological, and media-aware: "Tell the bastards!" says a 1930s documentary film-maker. Scholarly and unjudgmental, the book does.
— Martin Hoyle

Nature

Hunger is a thought-provoking book. Sharply focused and tightly argued.
— Michael Sargent

The Age

Charts, in great detail, the way hunger was constructed in the 19th century as something that the lazy and spineless brought upon themselves and how this perception changed in the 20th century with the emergence of the welfare state. Hunger may well be the subject of the book but in many ways it is the site for a discussion of the claims of market-based liberalism and social democracy and the way both camps depicted the very welfare state that, among other things, sought to eliminate malnutrition.
— Steven Carroll

Lancet

This tension—between the global and the local, the high-calorie west and the hungry rest—lies at the heart of Hunger: A Modern History. Historian James Vernon's widely acknowledged grasp of political history from the ground up brings depth and discernment to this compellingly argued and cogently written book. Vernon aims to provide a history of hunger in the UK and the British Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, beginning with the pomp and circumstance of the 1851 Great Exhibition aand ending with the cheerful austerity of the 1951 Festival of Britain. He uses changing British responses to hunger as a window on the rise of new forms of civil society and social welfare, and as a way to explore another recurring theme in his work—the question of responsibility. Who was to blame for hunger, and who could be expected to relieve it?...This eye for both sides of a debate makes Hunger: A Modern History both acutely moving and, in the main, profoundly persuasive...Hunger: A Modern History is politically engaged history at its most humane, and Vernon uses his compassion and erudition to drive home a deeply disquieting truth. In the secular, postmodern west, hunger is perhaps the closest we get to guilt.
— Richard Barnett

Publishers Weekly

We think of hunger and famine as symptoms of a failed economy and government. But shifting cultural perceptions of hunger are historical agents in their own right, as this probing study, concentrating on 19th- and 20th-century Britain, shows. Berkeley historian Vernon starts with premodern notions of hunger as divine punishment for sin or a Malthusian corrective for a lazy, overbreeding proletariat. This changed, he contends, with the 19th-century "humanitarian discovery of hunger" thanks to sensational newspaper stories of women and children, and later honest working men, starving through no fault of their own. Famines in Ireland and India fueled nationalist criticisms of British imperial rule, and suffragist hunger strikers made starvation a symbol of moral authority against an unjust state. Later, the nascent science of nutrition reimagined hunger in terms of a nutritional minimum that government should supply, and reformers made their efforts to eliminate hunger the rationale and the centerpiece of Britain's emerging welfare state. Following Michel Foucault, Vernon sees this history as a case study in social democracy's entanglement in liberalism, market ideology and elite demands for social discipline. Some of his arguments are weakly supported-was premodernity really so complacent about hunger?-and his topic rambles as far afield as kitchen appliances. Still, Vernon offers much lucid, trenchant rethinking on a resonant subject. 34 b&w illus. (Nov.)

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The Times

Vernon has put together a persuasive and wide-ranging history of hunger. His central tenet that hunger is not a natural catastrophe--it emerges into public view within historical contexts and for precise political reasons--is compelling.
Joanna Bourke

Kirkus Reviews
From British academic Vernon, a dense social history of hunger in Britain from the mid 19th century to the 1940s. Less than 200 years ago, Vernon notes, people dying of hunger were considered to be something less than human: "Their vulnerability to acts of nature or providence, illustrated only their lack of industry and moral fiber." The classical political economy of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus had established hunger as an avoidable man-made phenomenon. However, by the 1840s, the humanitarian reaction against the New Poor Law and the famine in Ireland put a face to those dying of starvation. A new generation of crusading journalists such as Vaughan Nash, Henry Nevinson and Henry Brailsford published shocking exposes, and famine in Ireland and India became identified with the failure of British colonial rule. May 1905 saw the first Hunger March, as hungry unemployed boot-workers marched from Raund (Leicestershire) to London, aiming to refute the claim that the unemployed were degenerate. Hunger strikes spread from suffragettes to Irish republicans, and Indians used their deep tradition of fasting and hunger striking to dramatize the illegality of colonial rule. After identifying the humanitarian concern and the advent of the modern welfare state, Vernon moves to the science of nutrition, or dietetics, which measured a minimum nutritional standard and was used to calculate the social costs of hunger in terms of productivity, efficiency and social stability. By the 1920s, hunger was redefined in terms of quality of diet. The World Wars saw the introduction of "collective feeding," i.e., factory canteens and school meals, and the 1940s saw the rise of domestic science and the efficientkitchen. Throughout the book, Vernon focuses in close academic detail on the precarious achievements of the British welfare state and the United Nations. From starvation to malnutrition to dieting, the knotty, slippery struggle to define and regulate hunger in the modern world.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674026780
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

James Vernon is Professor of History, University of California, Berkeley.
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Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • 1. Hunger and the Making of the Modern World
  • 2. The Humanitarian Discovery of Hunger
  • 3. Hunger as Political Critique
  • 4. The Science and Calculation of Hunger
  • 5. Hungry England and Planning for a World of Plenty
  • 6. Collective Feeding and the Welfare of Society
  • 7. You Are What You Eat: Educating the Citizen as Consumer
  • 8. Remembering Hunger: The Script of British Social Democracy
  • 9. Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Index

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