What do we know of the poor? The question is connected to how we—by which I mean the relatively rich—write about them. Poverty first became a focus for literary investigation in the industrial cities of the nineteenth century, when its sights, sounds, and smells moved too close to middle-class houses to continue being ignored by the people who lived inside. “We had but to go a hundred yards off and see for ourselves, but we never did,” wrote William Thackeray of his friend Henry Mayhew’s newspaper series on London street life, which in book form became London Labour and the London Poor. By traveling “into the poor man’s country” and returning with tales of “terror and wonder,” the novelist believed that Mayhew had revealed to the rich the “wonderous and complicated misery” of the poor for the first time.
This explorer’s approach, in which the poor are a foreign territory to be penetrated, was widely adopted in the last century when socially concerned writers not only spent time among the poor but also tried to live as poorly, so that they might close the gap with their subjects and underpin their observations with firsthand experience. The writer’s immiseration was sometimes brief. George Orwell spent less than a month in Wigan for the book that became The Road to Wigan Pier, and only some of that time in what must have been that coal-and-cotton town’s filthiest lodging house, which he had determinedly sought out. Nonetheless, the experience provided some of the book’s most memorable images: the chamber pot that was kept under the kitchen table, the landlord’s dirty hand that left thumbprints on the bread. Like Mayhew, Orwell returned with stories of wonder and terror, but where in his book did the poor speak or establish their personalities?
The only voice to be heard was the author’s. The distinct aspirations and fears of the people he happened upon couldn’t fit a book that was split between a polemic and a travel account, even in the hands of a writer as gifted as Orwell. Starting with Dickens, that individual complexity had become the province of the novel. In the 160 and more years since the Artful Dodger and Jo the Crossing Sweeper first appeared, it has tended to be compassionate fiction rather than the inquiring reporter that has fixed the poor in our memory as something more than a condition or a cause—as people as diversely and richly human as ourselves.
One of the remarkable achievements of Katherine Boo’s study of life in a Mumbai slum is to bring poor people so much closer to us, as close as they might be in fiction. The story unfolds in the third person and the “I” of the author never intrudes until the book’s postscript. Characters develop and connect to …