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Poor People

In response to:

Poverty Program from the January 30, 1969 issue

To the Editors:

In the course of his review of our book, Charles Booth’s London (NYR, January 20, 1969) John Gross writes that we committed “a succession of factual errors,” and then goes on to mention two. First, we “transmogrified” the English Marxist, H.M. Hyndman (“educated,” Gross informs us, “privately and at Trinity College, Cambridge”), into the “autodidact F.D. Hyndman.” Gross has us dead to rights on the question of initials, and we admit our error. But a person may go to college and still be called an autodidact. For autodidacticism refers more to a person’s way of thinking than to his academic credentials. In his autobiography, An Adventurous Life, Hyndman tells us that he learned nothing at Cambridge and that his education began when he read Marx’s Capital in French at the age of 39. (And Marx, it might be added, held him in contempt, partly for his autodidacticism.)

As to the second of our “errors,” Gross writes: “it is quite untrue to say that in the 1880s London was still periodically plagued by cholera; the last major outbreak was in 1866, and by 1870, the disease was no longer a threat, largely on account of the public health measures which are of the first importance to anyone studying the administration of the city at this period, but which Fried and Elman, who personally seem determined to make a sufficiently dark picture even darker, studiously ignore.” In the first place, it is not our intention to present a detailed study of the public administration of London. We wanted to give some idea of the state of affairs prevailing in the city, especially as they affected the poor in the 1880s. London, we wrote, “still lacked a water, sanitation, and public health system; it still suffered from periodic plagues of typhus and cholera; its poor laws were as archaic and oppressive as ever”; and not until the end of the decade was a municipal administration created “to assume over-all responsibility for education, sewage disposal, housing, and hospitals.” Here, then, was our factual error: we failed to state explicitly that the last “major” cholera epidemic took place in 1866.

But how can Gross in turn assert that the disease was “no longer a serious threat” (thanks to public health measures, etc.)? How did the people of London know that the threat was over, or had ceased to be a major one? The sewage disposal system that had been built in the 1850s and 60s was already obsolete. The water was still horribly polluted, and control of the water supply still lay in the hands of private companies, whose political influence was enormous. In response to public opinion, a Royal Commission on Metropolitan Sewage Disposal was set up, and it found, after surveying the Thames in 1884, “a condition of things which we must denounce as a disgrace to the metropolis and to civilization.” The Commission regarded the threat of cholera as a serious one.

We take exception to a few other things in Gross’s review. After acknowledging that we praise Booth’s objectivity, he states that we “get rather cross with him [Booth] when he argues that the better-paid workers and their families…often enjoyed a good deal of happiness.” We have been unable to find where we get rather cross with Booth on this matter (or on any other). In fact, we deliberately stressed the happy, or human and livable, side of lower-class London. Large sections of the book are devoted to Booth’s description of London culture (or sub-culture), its modes of entertainment, its clubs, etc. We doubt, however, that Booth would have said, as Gross does, that the inhabitants of the East End at the turn of the century thought of their section “as a home rather than as a hell-hole or an abyss.” If Booth demonstrated anything it was that the East End was both, that as long as one-third of its people lived at or below the poverty line those immediately above them—the skilled and unionized workers—were perilously insecure. The abyss might swallow them up at any time.

The Poor are always with us,” Gross declares in the opening sentence of his review. That any writer who begins on such a vast note of resignation about an enormous social crime should conclude with some disparaging remarks on the relevance of Booth’s work to contemporary thinking about poverty in the United States is only to be expected. Obviously, Gross doesn’t think such thinking is worth thinking about. Poverty in America, he implies, is largely a racial problem. “As for contemporary American cities,” he writes, “the nature of their problems seems even more remote [than those of late 19th century London]. To take only the most obvious example, there were very few black people in Booth’s London.” True enough. But it is also true that most Americans presently living below the poverty line (a term, incidentally, that Booth invented) are white; two-thirds of them (20 out of 29.7 million) to be exact. And Gross should tell us directly, not elliptically, why color makes a significant difference when poverty is the question. It is as though one were to say that people starved in nineteenth-century Ireland because they were Catholic, or, more to the point, that Negroes today are on welfare because their families break up.

Albert Fried

Richard M. Elman

New York City

John Gross replies:

It would surely be hard to carry misrepresentation much further than Mr. Elman and Mr. Fried manage to do in the course of their singularly ill-judged letter. To take the most flagrant instance first, they talk as though I began my review with the flat assertion that “the Poor are always with us,” whereas what I in fact wrote was: “The Poor are always with us—or such, at least, was the accepted Victorian view.” Having performed this little act of suppression, it becomes relatively easy for them to bandy about such miserable stuff as the allegation that “obviously” I find the problems of poverty simply not worth thinking about. Obviously. As it happens, the actual phrase about the poor always being with us was a routine piece of nineteenth-century cant, a kind of distorted Chadband echo of a well-known verse in St. Matthew. Even if Mr. Elman and Mr. Fried were unaware of this, however, it seems to me altogether incredible that having read the rest of the review they should seriously suppose that I endorse the Victorian attitude myself, or anything like it.

Similarly, there is nowhere in the review the remotest suggestion that poverty in America is primarily a racial problem. The point which I actually made has been misinterpreted and completely wrenched out of its context. After dwelling at some length both on Booth’s historical significance and his moral stature, I went on to say that nevertheless I doubted whether there were “many direct lessons” to be learned from him today (repeat, direct lessons—a rather different thing from saying that his work “isn’t worth thinking about”). The reason is that all said and done he was not a Tocqueville or a Marx; his importance is that of a fact-gathering investigator rather than an original thinker, and the facts of urban poverty in 1969 are not the facts which confronted him in 1889. If this is true of London itself (I instanced the researches of Michael Young and Peter Willmot), it is even truer of American cities, for a multitude of reasons, of which racial problems are the most obvious. Far from being “elliptical,” I added that if there had been a large black community in Booth’s London there would almost certainly have been a great deal of racism as well; I even threw in a reference to Enoch Powell for good measure. On the other hand there was not a word about race being the fundamental cause of poverty. Of course it isn’t; but surely there is no dispute about its being a complicating and exacerbating factor. Mr. Elman and Mr. Fried themselves would appear to share this view, in their calmer moments at least. Writing about America in the Introduction to their edition they observe that “the new poor are also increasingly black. More than ever they are aware that their poverty has been imposed upon them by their blackness.”

When I spoke about Mr. Elman and Mr. Fried getting rather cross with Booth for contending that the better-paid workers and their families often enjoyed a good deal of happiness, I had in mind their comment that “if Booth ever bothered to ask the working-class people if they thought they were happy, he has left us no record of such an exchange of views.” Possibly I was wrong, but I felt that I could detect a mild degree of irritation at this point. In any case, I added that such a reaction was understandable; one always does well to be fairly skeptical when a rich man talks about the happiness of the poor. But I still think that over all Booth was closer to the truth than someone like Jack London, with his rhetoric about the Abyss. This is an opinion which plainly doesn’t admit of final proof, one way or the other, but at least it is one which I feel I haven’t arrived at lightly. Much of my childhood was spent in a working-class quarter of East London; my father set up practice there as a doctor only twenty years after the period of Booth’s survey, amid abundant evidence of hardship, overcrowding, dirt, and malnutrition. Knowing what I do of the area, I would still maintain that although the East End in Booth’s time certainly had its atrocious individual “hell-holes,” it would be quite misleading to apply the term to the region as a whole. Not that there is really all that much disagreement between Mr. Elman and Mr. Fried and myself about this. I closed by review by stressing both the suffering of a large minority in Booth’s London, and “the extent to which even for the majority anxiety was always there in the background, like a dull persistent headache.”

As for the factual errors, if Mr. Elman and Mr. Fried honestly think that someone who has been educated by private tutors and then gone on to a university can reasonably be described, whatever his subsequent conversion experiences, as an autodidact, then I’m afraid we’re not speaking the same language. Admittedly I was drawing attention to a mistake which is of no great moment in itself, as I would have been if I had pointed out instead that Booth’s home was not, as Mr. Elman and Mr. Fried state, “just outside of London,” but in the depths of Leicestershire, or that Mr. Bumble was not a Poor Law Guardian but a beadle, and far more representative of the Old Poor Law than the New. These are all trivial enough slips, although taken together they might be said to suggest an imperfect grasp of the period. The blunder about cholera, however, is more serious, and not to be brushed aside as casually as Mr. Elman and Mr. Fried assume. In the first place, it is symptomatic of their tendency to overstate the case, to ignore improvements which had already taken place. And secondly, the history of cholera is an important subject in its own right, with far-reaching political and social implications. When they can find the time Mr. Elman and Mr. Fried ought to look up the relevant passages in Chevalier’s Classes laborieuses et classes dangereuses, or Asa Briggs’s essay on “Cholera and Society in the Nineteenth Century.” Apart from anything else they will learn from the latter that although Booth’s contemporaries couldn’t know for certain that cholera was no longer a major threat, England had already been left virtually unscathed by outbreaks abroad in 1873 and 1884.

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