Our Lady Poverty


THE last people to read the literature of poverty are the poor, and this fact may be cited as one of the ameliorations of their lot. If they were assured day after day that they were degraded and enslaved, it would be a trifle hard for them to cherish their respectability, and enjoy their freedom. If their misery were dinned into their ears, they would naturally cease being cheerful. If they were convinced that tears are their portion, they would no longer have the temerity to laugh. Indeed their mirth is frankly repellent to the dolorous writers of to-day.

A burst of hollow laughter from a hopeless heart is permitted as seemly and in character; even the poet of the slums grants this outlet for emotion; but the rude sounds which denote hilarity disturb the sympathetic soul. One agitated lady describes with shrinking horror the merriment of the scrub-women going to their labor. All the dignity, all the sacredness of womanhood are defiled by these poor old creatures tramping through the chill dawn; and yet, and yet,— oh, mockery of nobler aspirations! — ‘The scrub-women were going to work, and they went laughing!’

The dismalness of serious writers, especially if humanity be their theme, is steeping us in gloom. The obsession of sorrow seems the most reasonable of all obsessions, because facts can be crowded upon facts (to the general exclusion of truth) by way of argument and illustration. And should facts fail, there are bitter generalizations which shroud us like a pall.

Behind all music we can hear
The insistent note of hunger-fear;
Beyond all beauty we can see
The land’s defenseless misery.

Mr. Percy Mackaye in his preface to that treatise on eugenics which he has christened To-Morrow, and humorously designated as a play, makes this inspiriting statement: ’Our world is hideously unhappy, and the insufferable sense of that unhappiness is the consecration of modern leaders in art. Realism is splendidly their incentive.’

This opens up a cheering vista for the public. If the dramatists of the near future are to have no finer consecration than an insufferable sense of unhappiness, we must turn for amusement to lectures and organ recitals. If novelists and poets are to be hallowed by grief, there will be nothing left for light-hearted readers save the study of political economy, erstwhile called the ‘dismal science,’ but now, by comparison, gay. No artist yet was ever born of an insufferable sense of unhappiness. No leader and helper of men was ever bedewed with tears. The world is old, and the world is wide. Of what use are we in its tumultuous life, if we do not know its joys, its griefs, its high emotions, its call to courage, and the echo of the laughter of the ages?

Perhaps the only literature of poverty (I use the word ‘literature’ in a purely courteous sense) which was ever written for the poor is that amazing issue of tracts, Village Politics, Tales for the Common People, and scores of similar productions, which a hundred years ago were let loose upon rural England. The moral in all of them is the same, and is expressed with engaging simplicity: ‘Don’t give trouble to people better off than yourself.’ The fact that many of these tracts had a prodigious sale points to their distribution — by the rich — in quarters where it was thought that, they would do most good. They were probably read in the same spirit as that in which a Sundayschool library was read by two small and unregenerate boys of my acquaintance, who worked through whole shelves at a fixed rate, ten cents for a short book, twenty-five cents for a long one, — the money paid by a pious grandmother, and a point of honor not to skip.

The smug complacency of Hannah More and her sisterhood was rudely disturbed by Ebenezer Elliott, who published his Corn-Law Rhymer, with its profound pity and its somewhat impotent wrath, in 1831. England woke up to the disturbing conviction that men and women were starving, — always a disagreeable thing to contemplate,— and the Corn Laws were repealed; but the ‘ Rhymes ’ were probably as little known to the laborer of 1831 as was Piers Plowman to the laborer of 1392. Langland — to whom partial critics have for five hundred years ascribed this great poem of discontent — was keenly alive to the value of husbandry as a theme; and his ploughman came in time to be recognized as the people’s suffering representative; but the poet, after the fashion of poets, wrote for ’lettered clerks,’ of which class he was a shining example, his praiseworthy purpose in life being to avoid ‘common men’s work.’ In the last century, Les Misérables was called the ‘Epic of the Poor’; but its readers were, for the most part, as comfortably remote from poverty as Victor Hugo himself, and as alive to the advantages of wealth.

In this age of print, the literature of poverty has swollen to an enormous bulk. Statistical books, explicit and contradictory. Hopeful books by social workers who see salvation in girls’ clubs and refined dancing. Hopeless books by other social workers who believe — or, at least, who say — that the employed are enslaved by the employer, and that women and children are the prey of men. Highly colored books by adventurous young journalists who have masqueraded (for copy’s sake) as mill and factory hands. Gray books by casual observers who are paralyzed by the mere sight of a slum. Furious books by rabid socialists who hold that the poor will never be uplifted while there is left in the world a man rich enough to pay them wages. Imaginative books by poets and novelists who deal in realism to the exclusion of reality. All this profusion and confusion of matter is thrust upon us month after month, while the workingman reads his newspaper, and the worldng-girl reads A Coronet of Shame, or Lost in Fate’s Fearful Abyss.

It was Mr. George Gissing who, in his studies of the poor, first made popular the invective style; who hurled at London such epithets as ‘ pest-stricken,’ ‘city of the damned,’ ‘intimacies of abomination,’ ‘utmost limits of dread,’ — phrases which have been faithfully copied by shuddering defamers of New York and Chicago. Mr. John Burns, for example, after a brief visit to the United States, said that Chicago was a pocket edition of hell; and subsequently, without, we hope, any personal experience to back him, said that hell was a pocket edition of Chicago.

Americans have borrowed these flowers of speech from England, and have invaded her territory. Was it because he could find no poverty at home worthy of his strenuous pen, that, Mr. Jack London crossed the sea to write up the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, already so abundantly exploited by English authors? Was there anything he could add to the dark pictures of Mr. Gissing, or to the more convincing studies of Mr. Arthur Morrison, who has lit up the gloom with a grim humor, not very mirthful, but acutely and unimpeachably human? Mr. Gissing’s poor have money for nothing but beer (it would be a bold writer who denied his starvelings beer); but Mr. Morrison sees his way occasionally to bacon, and tea, and tinned beef, and even, at rare intervals, to a pompous funeral, provided that the money for mutes can be saved from the sick man’s diet. He is the legitimate successor of Dickens, and Dickens knew his field from experience rather than from observation. The light house-keeper sees the storm, but the cabin boy feels it.

In the annals of poverty there are few pages more poignant than the one which describes the sick child, Charles Dickens, taken home from work by a kind-hearted lad, and his shame lest this boy should learn that ‘home’ for him meant the debtors’ prison. In vain he tried to get rid of his conductor, Bob Fagin by name, protesting that he was well enough to walk alone. Bob knew he was not, and stuck to his side. Together they pushed along until little Charles was fainting with weakness and fatigue. Then in desperation he pretended that he lived in a decent house near Southwark bridge, and darted up the steps with a joyous air of being at last in haven, only to creep down again when Bob’s back was turned, and drag his slow steps to the Marshalsea.

Out of this dismal and precocious experience sprang two results,— a passionate resolve not to be what circumstances were conspiring to make him, and an insight into the uncalculating habits which deepen and soften poverty. Dickens — once free of institutions — wrote of the poor, even of the London poor, with amazing geniality; but it cannot be denied that his infallible recipe for brightening up the scene is the timely introduction of a pot of porter, or a pitcher of steaming flip. If we try to think of him writing in a prohibition state, we shall realize that he owed as much to beer and punch as ever Horace did to wine. Imagination fails to grasp either of them in the rôle of a water-drinker. The poor of Dickens are a sturdy lot, but they are jovial only in their cups. His wholesome hatred of institutions would have been intensified could he have lived to hear the Camberwell Board of Guardians decide‘—at the instigation, alas! of a woman member — that the single mug of beer which for years had solaced the inmates of Camberwell Workhouse on Christmas Day, should hereafter be abolished as an immoral indulgence. The generous ghost of Dickens must have groaned in Heaven over that melancholy and mean reform.


‘To achieve what man may, to bear what man must,’—since the struggle for life began, this has been the purpose and the pride of humanity. We Americans were trained from childhood to believe that while, in the final issue, each of us must answer for himself, the country—our country — gave to all scope for effort, and chance of victory. This was not mere Fourth of July oratory, nor the fervent utterances of presidential campaigns. It was a serious and a sober faith, based upon some knowledge of the Constitution, some inheritance of experience, some element of democracy which flavored our early lives. The mere sense of space carried with it a profound and eager hopefulness. Those of us whose fathers or whose grandfathers had crossed the sea to escape from more cramping conditions, felt this atmosphere of independence keenly and consciously. Those of us whose fathers or whose grandfathers brought up their families in an alien land with decent industry and thrift, were aware, even in childhood, that the Republic had fostered our growth. Therefore am I pardonably bewildered when I hear American workmen called ‘slaves’ and ‘prisoners of starvation,’ and American employers called ‘base oppressors,’ and ‘despots on their thrones.’ This fantastic nomenclature seems immeasurably removed from the temperate language in which were formulated the temperate convictions of my youth.

The assumption that the American laborer to-day stands where the French laborer stood before the Revolution, where the English laborer stood before the passing of the first Reform Bill and the repeal of the Corn Laws, shows a lack of historical perspective. The assumption that all strikes represent an agonized protest against tyranny, an agonized appeal from injustice, is a perversion of truth. The assumption that child-labor in the United States is the blot upon civilization that it was in England seventy years ago, denies the duty of comparison. If the people who write verses about ‘Labor Crucified’ would make a table of the wages paid to skilled and unskilled workmen, from the Chicago carpenter to the Philadelphia street-cleaner, they might sing in a more cheerful strain. If the people who to-day echo the bitterest lines of Mrs. Browning’s ‘Cry of the Children’ would ascertain and bear in mind the proportion of little boys and girls who are going to school in the United States, how many years they average, and how much the country pays for their education, they might spare us some violent invectives. Even Mr. Robert Hunter permits himself the use of the word ‘cannibalism’ when speaking of childworkers, and this in the face of legislation which every year extends its area, and grows more stringently protective.

There is a great deal of loose writing on this important theme, and it stands in the way of amendment. It is assumed that parents are seldom or never to blame for sending their children to work. The mill-owner snatches them from their mothers’ arms. It is assumed that the child who works would — if there were no employment for him — be at school, or at play, happy, healthy, and well-nourished. No one even alludes to the cruel poverty of the South, which, for generations before the cotton mills were built, stunted the growth and sapped the strength of Southern children. They lived, we are told, a ‘wholesome rural life,’ and the greed of the capitalist is alone responsible for the blighting of their pastoral paradise.

There is no need to write like this. The question at issue is a grave and simple one. It makes its appeal to the conscience and the sense of the nation, and every year sees some measure of reform. If a baby girl in an American city, a child of three or five, is forced to toil all day, winding artificial daisy stems at a penny a hundred, let the name of her employer and the place of her employment be made public. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children can deal peremptorily with such a case. It is not even the privilege of parents to work a little child so relentlessly. If the pathetic story is not supported by facts, or is not in accord with facts, it is neither wise nor well to publish it. Why should a sober periodical, like the Child-Labor Bulletin, devoted to a good cause, print a poem called ‘ A Song of the Factory,’ in which happy children are portrayed as sporting in beautiful meadows,

Idling among the feathery blooms,

until a sort of ogre comes along, builds a factory, drives the poor innocents into it, and compels them to

Crouch all day by the spindles, wizened, and wan, and old,

earning ‘ his bread.’ Apparently — and this is the gist of the matter — they have no need to earn bread for themselves. The accompanying illustrations show us on one page a prettily dressed little girl sitting daisy-crowned in the fields, and, on the other page, a ragged and tattered little girl with a shawl over her head going to the work which has but too plainly impoverished her. Hansel and Gretel are not more distinctly within the boundaries of fairyland than are these entrapped children. The witch is not more distinctly a child-eating hobgoblin than is the capitalist of such fervid song.

The sickly and unreasoning tone which pervades the literature of poverty is demoralizing. There is nothing helpful in the assumption that effort is vain, resistance hopeless, and the world monstrously cruel. The dominating element of such prose and verse is a bleak despair, unmanly, unwomanly, inhuman. Out of the abundance of material before me, I quote a single poem, published in the New York Call, reprinted in the Survey, and christened mockingly, —


They got y’, kid, they got y’, just like I said they would;
You tried to walk the narrow path,
You tried, and got an awful laugh;
And laughs are all y’ did get, kid, they got y’ good!
They never saw the little kid,— the kid I used to know,
The little bare-legged girl back home,
The little girl that played alone,
They don’t know half the things I know, kid; ain’t it so?
They got y’, kid, they got y’,— you know they got y’ right;
They waited till they saw y’ limp,
Then introduced y’ to the pimp,
Ah, you were down then, kid, and could n’t fight.
I guess you know what some don’t know, and others know damn well,
That sweatshops don’t grow angel’s wings,
That workin’ girls is easy things,
And poverty’s the straightest road to hell.

And this is what our Lady Poverty, bride of Saint Francis, friend of all holiness, counsel of all perfection, has come to mean in these years of grace! She who was once the surest guide to Heaven now leads her chosen ones to Hell. She who was once beloved by the devout and honored by the just, is now a scandal and a shame, the friend of harlotry, the instigator of crime. Even a true poet like Francis Thompson laments that the poverty exalted by Christ should have been cast down from her high caste.

All men did admire

Her modest looks, her ragged, sweet attire
In which the ribboned shoe could not compete
With her clear simple feet.
But Satan, envying Thee thy one ewe-lamb,
With Wealth, World’s Beauty and Felicity
Was not content, till last unthought-of she
Was his to damn.
Thine ingrate, ignorant lamb
He won from Thee; kissed, spurned, and made of her
This thing which qualms the air,
Vile, terrible, old,
Whereat the red blood of the Day runs cold.

These are the words of one to whom the London gutters were for years a home, and whose strengthless manhood lay inert under a burden of pain he had no courage to lift. Yet never was sufferer more shone upon by kindness than was Francis Thompson; never was man better fitted to testify to the goodness of a bad world. And he did bear such brave testimony again and yet again, so that the bulk of his verse is alien to pessimism,— ‘every stanza an act of faith, and a declaration of good will.'

The demoralizing quality of such stuff as ‘The Straight Road,’ which is forced upon us with increasing pertinacity, is its denial of kindness, its evading of obligation. Temptation is not only the occasion, but the justifier of sin, — a point of view which plays havoc with our common standard of morality. When a vicious young millionaire like Harry Thaw runs amuck through his crude and evil environment, we sigh and say, ‘His money ruined him.’ When a poor young woman abandons her weary frugalities for the questionable pleasures of prostitution, we sigh and say, ‘Her poverty drove her to it.’ Where then does goodness dwell? What part does honor play? The Sieur de Joinville, in his memoirs of Saint Louis, tells us that a certain man, sore beset by the pressure of temptation, sought counsel from the Bishop of Paris, ‘whose Christian name was William. ’ And this wise William of Paris said to him: ‘The castle of Montl’héry stands in the safe heart of France, and no invading hosts assail it. But the castle of La Rochelle in Poitou stands on the line of battle. Day and night it must be guarded from assault, and it has suffered grievously. Which gentleman, think you, the King holds high in favor, the governor of Montl’héry, or the governor of La Rochelle? The post of danger is the post of glory, and he who is sorely wounded in the combat is honored by God and man.’


There are those whose ardor for humanity finds a congenial vent in the denouncement of all they see about them, — all the institutions of their country, all the laborious processes of civilization. Sociologists of this type speak and write of an ordinary American city in terms which Dante might have envied. Nobody, it would seem, is ever cured in its hospitals; they only lie on ‘cots of pain.’ Nobody is ever reformed in its reformatories. Nobody is reared to decency in its asylums. Nobody is — apparently — educated in its schools. Its industries are ravenous beasts, sucking the blood of workers; its poor are ‘ shackled slaves ’; its humble homes are ‘dens.’ I have heard a philanthropic lecturer talk to the poor upon the housing of the poor. She threw on a screen enlarged photographs of narrow streets and tenement rooms which looked to me unspeakably dreary, but which the working-women around me gazed at in mild perplexity, seeing nothing amiss, and wondering that their residences should be held up to this unseemly scorn. They did not do as did the angry Italians of a New Jersey town, — smash the invidious pictures which shamed their homes; they sat in stolid silence and discomfiture, dimly conscious of an unresented insult.

It is hard to grasp a point of view immeasurably remote from our own; but what can we understand of other lives unless we do this difficult thing? Old women in the out-wards of an almshouse (of all earthly abodes the saddest) have boasted to me that their floors were scrubbed every other day, and their sheets changed once a week; and this braggart humor stunned my senses until I called to mind the floor and the bed of one of them (an extraordinarily dirty old woman) whom I had known in other years. Last winter the workers in a settlement house were called upon at midnight to succor a woman who had been kicked and beaten into unconsciousness by a drunken husband. The poor creature was all one bleeding bruise. When she was revived, her dim eyes traveled over the horrified faces about her. ‘It’s pretty bad,’ she gasped, ‘it ’s mighty bad’; and then, with another look at the group of protecting, pitying spinsters,

‘ but it must be something fierce to be an old maid.’

The city is a good friend to the poor. It gives them day nurseries for their babies, kindergartens for their little children, schools for their boys and girls, playgrounds, swimming pools, recreation piers, reading-rooms, libraries, churches, clubs, hospitals, cheap amusements, open-air concerts,employment agencies, the companionship of their kind, and the chance of a friend at need. In return, the poor love the city, and cling to it with reasonable but somewhat stifling affection. They know that the hardest thing in life is to be isolated, — ‘unrelated,’to use Carlyle’s apt word; and they escape this fate by eschewing the much-lauded fields and farms. They know also that in the country they must stand or fall by their own unaided efforts, they must learn the hard lesson of self-reliance. Many of them propose to live, as did the astute author of Piers Plowman, ‘ in the town, and on the town as well.' Moreover, pleasure means as much to them as it does to the rest of us. We hardly needed Mr. Chesterton to tell us that a visit to a corner saloon may be just as exciting an event to a tenement-house dweller, as a dinner at a gold-and-marble hotel is to the average middle-class citizen; and that the tenement-house dweller may be just as moderate in his potations: —

Merrily taking twopenny rum, and cheese with a pocket knife.

Poverty, we are assured, is an ‘ error,’like ill-health and crime. It is an anachronism in civilization, a stain upon a wisely governed land. But into our country which, after a human fashion, is both wise and foolish, pours the poverty of Europe. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants with but a few dollars between them and want; with scant equipment, physical or mental, for the struggle of life; with an inheritance of feebleness from ill-nourished generations before them,—this is the problem which the United States faces courageously, and solves as best she can. What she cannot do is miraculously to convert poverty into plenty, — certainly not before the next year doubles, and the third year trebles the miracle-seeking multitude. She cannot properly house or profitably employ a million of immigrants before the next million is clamoring at her doors. Nor is she even given a fair chance to accomplish her giant task. The demagogues who are employed in the congenial sport of railroad baiting, and who are enjoying beyond measure the fun of chivying business interests into dusty corners, are the ones to lift up their voices in shrill appeal for the army of the unemployed. They refuse to connect one phenomenon with the other. The notion that crippling industries will benefit the industrious is not so new as it seems. Æsop must have had a clear insight into its workings when he wrote the fable of the goose that laid the golden egg.

The City of New York expends, according to a recent report of the Hospital Investigating Committee, more than a million of dollars a year for the care of sick, defective, and otherwise helpless aliens. It expended in 1913 nearly four hundred thousand dollars for the care of aliens who had been in this country less than five years. This is the record of our greatest city, the one in which the astute immigrant takes up his abode. The education she gives her little foreign-born children comprises for the most part manual and vocational training, clinics for the defective, schools for the incorrigible, free or cost-price lunches, doctoring, dentistry, the care of trained nurses, and a score of similar attentions unknown to an earlier generation, undreamed of in the countries whence these children come. In return for such fostering care, New York is held up to execration because she has the money to pay the taxes which are expended in this fashion, because she lays the golden egg which benefits the poor of twenty nations. Her unemployed (reinforced hugely from less favored communities) riot in her streets and churches, and agitators curse her for a thing of evil, a city of palaces and slums, corroded with the

Shame of lives that lie
Couched in ease, while down the streets
Pain and want go by.

The only people who take short views of life are the poor, the poor whose daily wage is spent on their daily needs. Clerks and bookkeepers and small tradesmen (toilers upon whose struggle for decency and independence nobody ever wastes a word of sympathy) may fret over the uncertainty of their future, the narrow margin which lies between them and want. But the workman and his family have a courage of their own, the courage of the soldier who does not spend the night before battle calculating his chances of a gun-shot wound, or of a legless future. It is exasperating to hear a teamster’s wife cheerfully announce the coming of her tenth baby; but the calmness with which she faces the situation has in it something human and elemental. It is exasperating to see the teamster risk illness and loss of work (he might at least pull off his wet clothes when he gets home); but he tells you he has not gone to his grave with a cold yet, and this careless confidence saves him as much as it costs. I read recently an economist’s sorrowful complaint that families, in need of the necessities of life, go to moving-picture shows; that women, with their husbands’ scanty earnings in their hands, take their children to these blithesome entertainments instead of buying the Sunday dinner. It sounds like the citizens who buy motor cars instead of paying off the mortgages on their homes, and it is an error of judgment which the workingman is little likely to condone; but that the pleasure-seeking impulse — which social workers assign exclusively to the spirit of youth — should mutiny in a matron’s bones suggests survivals of cheerfulness, high lights amid the gloom.

The deprecation of earthly anxiety taught by the Gospels, the precedence given to the poor by the New Testament, the value placed upon voluntary poverty by the Christian Church,—these things have for nineteen hundred years helped in the moulding of men. There still remain some leaven of courage, some savor of philosophy, some echoes of ancient wisdom (heard oftenest from uneducated men), some laughter loud and careless as the laughter of the Middle Ages, some slow sense of justice, not easy to pervert. These qualities are perhaps as helpful as the ‘divine discontent’ fostered by enthusiasts for sorrow, the cowardice bred by insistence upon trouble and anxiety, the rancor engendered by invectives against earth and heaven. No lot is bettered by having its hardships emphasized. No man is helped by the drowning of his courage, the destruction of his good-will, the paralyzing grip of

Envy with squinting eyes,
Sick of a strange disease, his neighbor’s health.