From the mid-19th century until the rise of the modern welfare state in the early 20th century, Anglo-American philanthropic giving gained an unprecedented measure of cultural authority as it changed in kind and degree. Civil society took on the responsibility for confronting the adverse effects of industrialism, and transnational discussions of poverty, urbanization, women’s work, and sympathy provided a means of understanding and debating social reform. While philanthropic institutions left a transactional record of money and materials, philanthropic discourse yielded a rich corpus of writing that represented, rationalized, and shaped these rapidly industrializing societies, drawing on and informing other modernizing discourses including religion, economics, and social science. Showing the fundamentally transatlantic nature of this discourse from 1850 to 1920, the authors gather a wide variety of literary sources that crossed national and colonial borders within the Anglo-American range of influence. Through manifestos, fundraising tracts, novels, letters, and pamphlets, they piece together the intellectual world where philanthropists reasoned through their efforts and redefined the public sector.
About the Author
Frank Q. Christianson is Associate Professor of English at Brigham Young University. He is author of Philanthropy in British and American Fiction: Dickens, Hawthorne, Eliot and Howells, and Senior Editor of The Papers of William F. Cody.
Leslee Thorne-Murphy is Associate Professor of English at Brigham Young University.
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The poverty of Sympathy
In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith describes how the condition of impoverishment is a barrier to sympathy as well as to the social visibility or intelligibility on which it apparently depends. Assessing the "disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or at least, to neglect, persons of poor and mean condition," Smith describes how the "poor man goes out and comes in unheeded, and when in this midst of the crowd is in the same obscurity as if shut up in his own hovel." This chapter locates the impoverishment of sympathy that Smith describes in the displacement of traditional forms of social benevolence and what Bruce Robbins calls the "privatization of love" associated with the rise of a liberal political economy. This absence of sympathy for the poor is conspicuously evident in antebellum discourses of poverty; shaped by the English Poor Law debates and the rise of economic liberalism, as well as by the increased visibility of the urban poor in the early decades of the century, this discourse initiated a new skepticism about poverty and a hardening in attitudes toward the poor.
A central figure in this discourse was the poor, unmarried mother, whose entitlement to both sympathy and relief was increasingly questioned, and who was seen to pass what reformer William Ellery Channing termed the "fatal inheritance" of poverty on to her offspring. The cultural prominence of this figure reflects the influential theories of Thomas Malthus, who assailed the traditional system of poor relief for encouraging excessive reproduction among the poor, with potentially catastrophic consequences — a process checked only by the disciplinary force of female chastity. For Malthus, it is to the "fatal effects" of an unrestrained "increase in population" that we may attribute the "very natural ... superior disgrace which attends a breach of chastity in the woman, [more] than in the man," so that "a woman should be at present almost driven from society" for committing this "offence," a "custom" best dictated less by "state necessity" than by "female delicacy" and morality. This chapter examines how the diminishment of sympathy for poor, unmarried mothers was both registered and contested in two texts from 1850: George Foster's collection of sketches, New York by Gaslight, and the popular pamphlet novel Mary Bean: The Factory Girl. Both texts at once gesture toward and unsettle the widespread sensational, phobic construction of poor women's sexual stories; both incorporate surprisingly moving oral narratives or testimonials of female economic suffering, which become textual sites for mobilizing and remembering residual forms of sympathy and care for poor women. The chapter ends with a discussion of the writings of former factory girl and working-class activist Jennie Collins, whose 1871 book Nature's Aristocracy: A Plea for the Oppressed comprises just such testimonials; Collins determines to write so that the "shades of the hungry, toil-killed, and heart-shattered ... women shall tell their tales to the world in death, as they told them to me in life." Collins at once critiques the capitalist organization of charity — a system in which a "man gives back to his victims ... a part of the sum of which he deliberately robbed them" and is then "lauded to the skies as an example of mortal perfection" — and locates true benevolence and sympathy in the hearts and communal practices of working-class women.
In her essay "Sympathy and Its Vicissitudes," Gillian Silverman emphasizes the importance of narrative for catalyzing sympathy's affective exchange; for Silverman, "sympathy ... is contingent upon discourse; we enter into vicarious suffering only by entering into language and storytelling." Silverman notes that, for Adam Smith, "the 'first question which we ask is, What has befallen you?' and '[t]ill this be answered ... our fellow-feeling is not very considerable.'" Although this class matrix and history have generally been obscured in the cultural and literary history of US sentimentality, the public performance of "tales of woe" was central to traditional scenes of poor relief. In Britain and in the colonies, poor relief in the eighteenth century was governed by the English poor laws and was structured as parish relief. Individuals would perform their tales of woe before bodies sometimes known, sentimentally enough, as the Guardians of the Poor; the Guardians would be elite men in the community, often intimately acquainted with the teller and with her or his history of suffering. As scripted by this scenario, the poor would reveal to their superiors their impoverished condition, while the rich publicly, and quite palpably, revealed their beneficent nature.
In the early nineteenth century, urbanization, as well as the increased influence of liberal economic ideology that underwrote an expanded market society, facilitated a recasting of these scenes of sympathetic exchange and their forms of ritualized public sentiment; in particular, liberal economic theory initiated a new skepticism about and distrust of the poor. Beggars were envisioned as duplicitous actors, and their tales of suffering were reimagined as counterfeit rather than sincere testimonials; one English poor law reformer spoke of the "false tale of distress" regularly recounted by the "idle laborer" bent on deceiving and swindling the public. Such views were widely circulated in the American press; George Fitzhugh's Cannibals All! quotes a long passage from the Edinburgh Review describing various categories of "beggar imposters" who victimize kindhearted urban inhabitants with "long, pitiful got-up tale[s] of pretended distress." While the United States never experienced the intense anxiety about overpopulation (and poor women's reproductivity) that Malthus's theories generated in England, the increased visibility of the urban poor and the rapidly expanding welfare rolls in cities in the years after 1815, and especially after the Panic of 1819, effected what historians of social welfare describe as a similar hardening in attitudes toward the poor and changes in welfare policies. As in Britain, a number of scientific reports — aiming to temper what one reformer termed the "blind sympathy" of earlier relief practices — were issued inquiring into the causes of poverty and the identity, number, and condition of the poor, and Societies for the Prevention of Pauperism were established in every sizable northern city. Most of these bodies recommended substantial changes in the distribution of poor relief, in particular a shift from "outdoor relief" (cash pensions) to indoor relief (the almshouse and workhouse, with the stigma of shame that would serve as a spur to work) and were marked by a "deepening distrust" and growing "contempt" toward the "increasing throng" of the "dependent poor."
Indeed, according to one historian, "The influence of the classical economists ... and the idea that public relief tended to pauperize and demoralize recipients" met "even more rigid acceptance in the United States than in England." Precisely the idea(l) that, in America, poverty need not exist encouraged a "harsh and suspicious view of the poor." Poverty was increasingly read as moral failure: in this context, the recipient of the tale of woe was encouraged not to sympathize with the sufferings of the bearer of the tale but to search for the moral failings and vices to which this suffering might be attributed — to find their hidden but underlying moral causes. By the 1820s, as Bruce Dorsey observes, "public sentiments alleged that improvidence caused poverty and indiscriminate charity encouraged pauperism." Reflecting these views, Ezra Stiles Ely, in his 1822 article "Prevention of Pauperism," observes that the majority of paupers landed in almshouses because of their own "drunkenness, idleness, extravagance, improvidence, laziness, lust and the righteous curse of unchastity." While acknowledging that "the laboring population ... appear not to obtain a proportionate share of the growing prosperity around them," reformers such as Ely promoted the view that since the causes of poverty and destitution are "chiefly moral," they "admit only moral remedies."
This reformulation of sympathy was scripted into and by the writings of poverty reformers. As Silverman notes, in Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, "the achievement of fellow feeling relies on cognition and understanding rather than on any automatic or blind responsiveness." Silverman illustrates the point with the following quotation from Smith: "The compassion of the spectator must arise altogether from consideration of what he himself would feel if he was reduced to the same situation, and, what perhaps is impossible, was at the same time able to regard it with his present reason and judgment." Mobilizing this reason and judgment, antebellum writers about poverty (in dialogue with British poor law reformers) aimed to delimit indiscriminate almsgiving as the product of unregulated emotion. As Boston reformer R. C. Waterston notes in his "Address on Pauperism" (published in 1844 by the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism), "The idea of generosity is agreeable to our nature, and the delicate sympathies of the heart are gratified in the act of benevolence," so that "when applications are made, the first impulse is to give at once, and to give without investigation."
However, for this and other poor law reformers, such impulses must be controlled, and such investigation is crucial; reformers would engage in home visits and interviews to determine the moral character of the poor to combat what Waterston terms the "great evil" of "indiscriminate almsgiving" — itself the cause (following the Malthusian logic) of "increasing pauperism." Whereas innocent children are worthy of what Charles Burroughs in his "Discourse on Pauperism" (1835) terms the "tenderest sympathies and most generous relief," the adult poor — especially the able-bodied poor — are the object of increased skepticism. Is their poverty the consequence of legitimate ill fortune, or — more likely — the consequence of vice? Or worse, is it the sham performance of what Burroughs calls the "professional beggar"? Especially when there are "applications from strangers," one should exercise the necessary "caution" until a proper "investigation ... has been made"; "true benevolence will seek to manifest itself in the wisest way," and this requires "serious reflection" about the probable consequences of one's almsgiving.
The textualization of sympathy in sentimental texts can be seen to facilitate and affirm the distanced, reflective stance toward the poor, which is recommended by Smith and by these poverty reformers; it also can be seen to affirm what Dorsey describes as the spiritualization of poverty, the focus on the spiritual and moral versus bodily needs of the poor — specifically, the view that, in Waterston's description, "a kind word spoken will be of more benefit ... than the charity bestowed." Recommending a new emphasis on "spiritual" versus "temporal" wants, Waterston writes, "We must strive not merely to alleviate wretchedness, but to reform character" and "thus elevate the moral condition of the poor."
On the one hand, the reformulated sympathy recommended by poverty writers aimed to displace what Burroughs called the "charity of compulsion" of traditional relief practices. Writers traced the problem to the 1601 Act of 43 Elizabeth, chapter 2, known as the Old Poor Law, since American poor laws were "derived ... from the code of that country from which we descended." That belief that the act "produces such sympathies between [the poor] and the rich, and binds together in such a golden union these two remote classes, by such expressions of kindness on the one side, and by such a deep sense of gratitude on the other," Burroughs argues, is a sentimental myth. In truth, the poor tax is paid "without any consciousness of a charitable disposition." And the pauper receives legislative aid "not as a charity, but as a right." Instead of producing binding sympathies, Burroughs contends, the Old Poor Law in fact produces a "gulf of separation between the rich and the poor," for the parties "regard each other as natural enemies," as "hardhearted oppressors" and "poachers," respectively. While assailing traditional forms of benevolence as emotionally impoverished, reformers such as Burroughs recast relief, as suggested earlier, in spiritual rather than material terms.
The displacement of material relief — the new tendency during home visits to distribute tracts, not alms — is evident in the strikingly material metaphors through which sympathy is depicted, especially the figuration of sympathy as food. In a June 1837 letter from Jane Sedgwick to her sister Catharine (author of the 1837 novel The Poor Rich Man and the Rich Poor Man, which is an important text for the refiguration of sympathy and poverty I describe here), this metaphorization is plainly evident. Jane writes to Catharine, "Of all the abundant good gifts you have received with such liberality from God, there is not one for which you ought to be so grateful as the power of your sympathy. What would your genius do without it for those poor exiles, what for that host of children who are fed with your smiles, for all that crowd of poor in spirit who are the chief paupers in our community!"
A central target of poverty discourse — as with the discourse surrounding the Poor Law Amendment Act in Britain — was the poor unmarried mother. Under the notorious and highly controversial "Bastardy Clause" of the British New Poor Law (1834), single mothers were prohibited from naming fathers and from expecting the parish to extract money from the father or receive any cash payment; if she could not support her child, she would have to enter a workhouse. As Lisa Cody notes, Liberal and Whig critics of the Old Poor Law who engineered the New Poor Law characterized single mothers as "pests of society," burdens, villains, strumpets, and cunning manipulators of men and charity. These discourses transformed poor women into deceitful calculators who became pregnant either to force their partner into marriage or to live idly on the relief that the parish would provide in lieu of the father's support; the poor, unmarried mother became a self-interested speculator whose womb was a kind of factory for the production of excess profit.
American poverty writers took up these themes as well. Extending relief to unmarried mothers as a regular stipend from the public purse "whenever the female cannot find a profitable father for her offspring" affords "countenance and encouragement" to vice — and is thus (following the Malthusian logic) a "breeding ground" for pauperism. Several writers objected to women's "unblushing effrontery," and their "exacting as a right what ought never to have been granted, even as a charity," in appealing for relief. Since respectable poverty "shrinks from public view," the appeal for relief is itself a morally suspect performance, approximating itself to the "abominable arts, which make beggary and parish relief a better trade than labor." The very notion that respectable poverty "shrinks from public view" itself affirmed the moralization of poverty, its construction as "secret shame" (a view evident in the pamphlet novel Mary Bean, discussed below). Several cities, including Boston and Philadelphia, crafted poor laws that mirrored British developments; by the 1820s, poor women were increasingly seen to bear the burden of the responsibility, morally and economically, for premarital sexuality.
The impoverishment of sympathy toward poor women was at once registered and contested in Mary Bean: The Factory Girl, an 1850 pamphlet novel written by "Miss J. A. B. of Manchester." Mary Bean features the perils of courtship in the industrial capitalist era, when the economic and social risks of premarital sex intensify for women, and, in the narrator's words, "the obtaining of a good husband is like drawing a prize in a lottery, where all the tickets but one are blanks." Like the revolutionary-era seduction narratives analyzed by Cathy Davidson, the story provides a kind of gender pedagogy, adapted to the conditions of antebellum industrial life. Mary is a country girl brought by her would-be seducer, George Hamilton, to the factory town (in this instance, Manchester, New Hampshire); here the passage to the factory town is not the prelude to but the vehicle of seduction, plotted as part of "the course which her lover had so ingeniously marked out" to facilitate her sexual "fall" and her subsequent career as his mistress. The story exploits the seduced factory maid as literary type: the title page describes her tale as "illustrating the trials and temptations of factory life" — though in fact, the heroine's native village is the setting in which George melodramatically "mould[s] [Mary] to [his] wishes," and the factory tour (where Mary is introduced to "the various machines used in the manufacture of the goods," as well as the "pretty factory girls") is a male plot device. Even Mary's factory work is scripted under the sign of male desire: claiming that, because of failed investments, he "lacks the means" to provide her with "a maintenance becoming of [her] situation, and one worthy [of] the love" Mary bears him, George convinces her to seek a position in the factory, where she can "earn something for the two of them." Male economic bankruptcy here signifies as female erotic ruin, and it is unprotected poor women who are most vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the market. Mary's lover is a murderer as well as a seducer, his utter disregard for life is underscored by the narrative pairing of these two acts, and Mary ultimately dies at the hands of an abortionist to whom she is sent by George in an effort to free himself from unwanted dependents. The antebellum discourse about poverty, with its curtailment of sympathy, provides the social matrix that makes the ubiquitous seduced and abandoned stories intelligible. The new contempt for poor women, underwritten by liberal political economy, legitimates their sexual objectification and abandonment and their treatment as social outcasts; male sadism toward economic dependents (the unborn child, the pregnant lover) are given emphatic, and horrific, narrative expression.
Excerpted from "Philanthropic Discourse In Anglo-American Literature, 1850-1920"
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Table of Contents
Preface, Telescopic Philanthropy Redeemed / Frank Q. Christianson and Leslee Thorne-Murphy
Introduction, Writing Philanthropy in the United States and Britain / Frank Q. Christianson and Leslee Thorne-Murphy
1. The Poverty of Sympathy / Lori Merish
2. Self-Undermining Philanthropic Impulses: Philanthropy in the Mirror of Narrative / Daniel Bivona
3. Education as Violation and Benefit: Doctrinal Debate and the Contest for India’s Girls / Suzanne Daly
4. Urban Reform and the Plight of the Poor in Women’s Journalistic Writing / Monica Elbert
5. Lady Bountiful for the Empire: Upper-class Women, Philanthropy, and Civil Society / Dorice Williams Elliott
6. Patrons, Philanthropists, and Professionals: Henry James’s Roderick Hudson / Francesca Sawaya
7. "Witnessing them day after day": Ethical Spectatorship and Liberal Reform in Walter Besant’s Children of Gibeon / Tanushree Ghosh
8. "The Orthodox Creed of the Business World"? Philanthropy and Liberal Individualism in Edith Wharton's The Fruit of the Tree / Emily Coit
9. Sustaining Gendered Philanthropy through Transatlantic Friendship: Jane Addams, Henrietta Barnett and Writing for Reciprocal Mentoring / Sarah Robbins
Conclusion / Frank Q. Christianson and Leslee Thorne-Murphy
Afterword, Follow the Money / Kathleen D. McCarthy