As an English professor, I have long appreciated the importance of teaching the humanities in my college courses, and have encouraged students to engage with literary works so as to better understand themselves and the world around them. But it is true that many literature professors, myself included, do not systematically attend to the topic of poverty in these courses, although it is found in literary texts from around the world and throughout literary history.
I have been shy to talk about poverty in my courses; money is such a taboo topic. While “class” frequently comes up as a subject, I realized that in the past I had somehow dissected poverty out of the conversation, focusing either on “labor”—and somehow leaving money out of it—or on the wealthy end of the class discussion. Moreover, institutionally and culturally, we have been encouraged and supported to address issues of race and gender, but less so class in recent years.
At the same time, I am professionally interested in the question of money in literature. I have been working on a book project that for a time I vaguely referred to as being about “women and money,” but which now has been narrowed down to an investigation of the literary representations of women working on the margins (and yet the center) of the fashion and garment industries, as seamstresses, piece workers, textile workers, models, and saleswomen, and they ways in which they are depicted in late 19th and early 20th century novels and short stories as both producers of commodities and as consumers. It turns out that literary works are not actually that reluctant to discuss money. Balance sheets, receipts, and invoices are often present in realist fiction, and they are often about the production or acquisition of fabric and clothing.
I would like to work on integrating some of this research into the syllabus for my special topics elective, “Literature and Fashion” (English 350).
I want to do this in two ways: first, through (re)framing poverty with my students in fictional or poetry texts that I already teach (e.g. The Ladies’ Paradise, The House of Mirth, The Overcoat, “The Sundays of Satin Legs Smith,” etc.), and second, through the integration of more non-fiction texts (historical documents or philosophy treatises, for example—I do already teach some sociology and history articles, but as stand-alone texts) that I would pair with the literary texts.
I am still trying to concretize the second part of this, in which I use the non-fiction humanities text in conjunction with the literary, but I definitely think that more contextualization of the literary works would make for a richer experience in the course for my students and myself.