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Hunger. A Modern History.

Hunger. A Modern History. By James Vernon (Cambridge and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2007. xii plus 369 pp. $29.95).

Hunger has been omnipresent throughout human history. How it has been viewed, understood, judged and prevented have, however, changed in the modern age. According to this new history on the subject by James Vernon, from the middle of the nineteenth century, hunger, as a concept, changed from "part of God's divine plan or the necessary sign of an individual's moral failure to learn the virtue of labor" (p. 2) to a social problem reflecting the failure of economic systems and political policies. How this transformation occurred and the implications of it for the hungry, is at the core of this extremely interesting and compelling historical narrative.

Vernon begins with the Malthusian explanation for the problems of hunger in the new industrial world of Britain and its expanding Empire in the late eighteenth century. But the notion that hunger and hunger alone would teach people obedience and industry was challenged by criticism from the evangelicals and others that hunger was the problem, not the solution to issues of morality and the moral economy. Hunger became seen as a social problem resulting from legislative policy like the New Poor Law. As the realities of hunger and poorrelief were publicized in the press, photography and popular literature, the hungry were seen as sympathetic figures rather than "architects of their own misery" (p.39).

Once the hungry were made human, feeding them became a litmus test for the British government. Hunger, therefore, became intertwined in politics. For nationalists and critics of the British imperial reign, hunger reflected the incompetence and/or racist policies of the Empire. In Ireland, famine was explained as a man-made policy of Anglo-Irish landlords, bureaucrats, and politicians who were motivated by self-interest, efficiency and hatred of the Irish Catholic poor. In India, famine reflected colonial incompetence at moving resources and intentionally pauperizing labor to keep the commercial classes profitable. Force-feeding the hunger-striking suffragettes was a different kind of political test for the British government, one in which intolerance for what contemporaries labeled "unconstitutional" treatment of women, was unacceptable. Asquith's Liberal government and its authoritarian actions of force-feeding was no better than the harshest of monarchical and military regimes. For the government to let people starve was inexcusable. For the government to authorize physical force in order to feed those who chose hunger as a tool of political protest was equally bad. Hunger and morality were intertwined and the British government looked for new ways to depoliticize solutions to the humanitarian problem.

Scientific solutions would offer new means to correct the problem of hunger. Vernon devotes a chapter to the work of scientists, investigators and statisticians such as William Farr and John Boyd Orr. Understanding nutrition, metabolic combustion, etc., further transformed the view of hunger. Malnutrition could be avoided with education and assistance for the poor. Therefore, hunger continued to be political, it just changed from a symptom of victimization of market forces, failed colonial policies or protest events (such as the hunger strikes and marches) to a policy issue within the framework of twentieth century welfare reform. Discussions of hunger, Vernon contends, moved from the moralistic and humanitarian tones of the Victorian age to "technical equations showing how many calories human beings required and how much they would cost" (p. 117) Colonial ties were still critical, however, as transnational research institutes and foundations sought to create links between advancements in science and increased agricultural productivity and answers to questions concerning variations among nutrition, disease and races of human beings.

The "hungry thirties" brought everything together. The politics of hunger revealed that "malnutrition" and "undernutrition" were very different things and that the scientific means to measure hunger were underscored by the social, regional and cultural meanings of food and poverty. The hunger of northern England was a very real result of unemployment in the industrial sector. But as politicians differed as to the role the government should play in correcting unemployment and poverty, it was willing to create government agencies to address nutritional standards (i.e. the Ministry of Health's Advisory on Nutrition and the Committee Against Malnutrition). Successful policies were less frequent than the proliferation of serious study of the impact of hungry and nutritional deficiencies, but that was enough to force through policies in the 1930s and during the Second World War. Science did not redefine hunger, but increased the acceptable nutritional minimums dividing the hungry from the healthy. Socialreformers could then go beyond the issue of poverty and hunger in proposing policies and instead argue for legislation that would plan production and distribution of food supplies with a mind to nutritional need and the welfare of populations rather than just market forces.

To that end, Vernon's final chapters examines things like the school meal and factory canteen efforts of pre-1945 years and the education of the British housewife and mother to feed her family better. Linking poverty and ignorance, social and government policy focused on teaching children and consumers to make better choices than they would on their own. Food economy, household management, and the modernization of the clean and efficient kitchen, all were important factors in the new campaign to raise standards for home economics and general nutrition. How much they worked is very much debatable. But, as Vernon's final chapter shows, they were not what ultimately shifted the politization of hunger to one requiring a universal system of social insurance and welfare to end it. The hungry marches of the National Unemployed Workers Movement and others in the 1930s made the issue undeniable and unhidden. No longer isolated in the slums or hidden in foreign lands, the slow starvation of neighbors and fellow citizens changed how people and politicians viewed hunger. The elimination of it became seen as a social right of all British subjects. Education programs and nutritional standards were one thing, but when unemployed men who had no means with which to buy any food at all, marched down the streets of London, asking their government for work and for help, the humanitarian, scientific and political understandings of hunger were all immediately transformed into a new national political will. The political response to hunger was now firmly part of the social democratic welfare programs of the post-war era with government ministries, private agencies, nutritional scientists, educators, and labor movements, all playing their role in ending it. Vernon does a masterful job showing the evolution of both the understanding and misunderstanding of hunger as a political issue, one which has never been solved to everyone's satisfaction, but one in which this book can only help those who read it to shape new solutions to the still-existent problems connected to hunger in the world today.

Nancy LoPatin-Lummis

University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
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Author:LoPatin-Lummis, Nancy
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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