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Reviewed by:
  • Philanthropic Discourse in Anglo-American Literature, 1850–1920 ed. by Frank Q. Christianson, Leslee Thorne-Murphy
  • Patti Luedecke (bio)
Philanthropic Discourse in Anglo-American Literature, 1850–1920
Edited with an Introduction by Frank Q. Christianson and Leslee Thorne-Murphy
Indiana University Press, 2017. 272 pp. $34.99 paper

In 1843 Herbert Spencer, whose laissez-faire individualism still dominated economic practice in Edith Wharton’s day, wrote that “national charity” would deaden sympathy: “[T]he payment of poor rates will supplant the exercise of real benevolence,” resulting in “a depreciation of the national character” (14–15). Spencer’s argument that “real benevolence” can exist only in a classical liberal environment, and his emphasis on the English Poor Law’s corruption of national morality, exemplify some of the now-forgotten nuances at issue in what Frank Q. Christianson and Leslee Thorne-Murphy call philanthropic discourse. Not to be confused with our current concept of the term as a mere addendum to capitalism, philanthropy in the nineteenth and early twentieth century involved not just monetary giving, but also organizational reform and volunteerism. The essays in Christianson and Thorne-Murphy’s collection recover this broader meaning of philanthropy. Philanthropic Discourse in Anglo-American Literature, 1850–1920 does important historicizing work by resituating discourses of philanthropy, charity, and sympathy firmly within nineteenth-century Anglo-Americanpolitical economy.

Philanthropic Discourse provides insight into how nineteenth-century philanthropy was torn between conflicting impulses: religious versus secular,systemic reform versus individual volunteerism, feminine civility versus threatening feminism. On the one hand, philanthropic discourse pulsed with teleological optimism, as exemplified by the International Congress of Charities, Correction, and Philanthropy at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, which Christianson and Thorne-Murphy discuss by way of introducing the collection. On the other hand, philanthropic discourse, as a number of the collection’s essays detail, exposed a liberal economics that was troubled by philanthropy’s subversion of both the beneficiary’s and the philanthropist’s sovereignty. While the editors’ introduction synthesizes philanthropy’s discursive tensions into “a key factor in the development of the nineteenth-century transatlantic social imagination,” the essays vary in their investment in this larger Anglo-American framework (4). Nevertheless, by uncovering the frictions [End Page 88] that pulled philanthropic discourse in divergent and debated directions, the collection gathers illuminating scholarship on not only poverty, but also gender, education, labor politics, and capitalist economics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The collection progresses from broader historical and thematic analyses to essays with more detailed readings of specific texts. An example of the former class, Lori Merish’s essay provides a useful history of the Poor Law, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), and the rise of economic liberalism in the mid-nineteenth century. Her essay details how “liberal economic theory initiated a new skepticism about and distrust of the poor” (14). Merish documents that “poverty discourse” deployed the figures of the unwed mother and the prostitute as channels for the retrenchment of sympathy (17). Merish shows how “[w]orkingwomen’s texts” replenished depleted reserves of sympathy for impoverished women (25). Like Merish, Daniel Bivona looks to Smith and other Enlightenment philosophers to explain Victorian concerns over the “disinterestedness” of philanthropy and about the “spectator’s evident experience of pleasure in the other’s suffering” (31, 34). Bivona argues that George Gissing’s and Charles Dickens’s novels contributed to the corrosion of philanthropy’s “moral authority” in the 1880s (31). Merish’s and Bivona’s essays lay profitable historical groundwork for students of Wharton. While these essays deal with earlier nineteenth-century shifts from sympathy to skepticism about poverty, Wharton’s world was the beneficiary of economic liberalism’s impoverishment of sympathy. (Think, for example, of Gerty Farish’s difficulty in garnering interest, and funds, for her Girls’ Club.)

Both Suzanne Daly’s and Dorice Williams Elliott’s essays elucidate the uneven experiences had by women of differing classes who participated in philanthropy to escape domestic constraints and to enrich their lives through professionalization. Daly engages with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s concept of enabling violation to complicate straightforward readings of Indian colonial education unidirectionally transitioning from religious to secular modes. Elliott charts the...


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pp. 88-92
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