New American Blues: A Journey Through Poverty to Democracy

Earl Shorris, Author W. W. Norton & Company $29.95 (432p) ISBN 978-0-393-04554-3
Shorris (Latinos) arranges his book on poverty into two sections, ""Private Life"" and ""Public Life,"" although, as he shows, such distinction is difficult to maintain when discussing the poor. ""Private Life"" forms the bulk of the work, a series of narratives based on extensive interviews. The personal stories range widely in tone as well as location, from a grandmotherly former stripper in California to a group of young mothers in the South Bronx. Shorris adds political and historical perspective to these tales filled with hunger and sadness. In the ""Public Life"" section, the two seemingly disparate worlds of theory and actuality mesh. A woman in prison suggests to Shorris that studying the humanities could help the poor reconnect with the larger society. So he designed a course to teach students models of pure democracy to help them interact better among their peers and learn about the forces that perpetuate their condition. The course is still offered in New York City under the aegis of Bard College with instructors such as Grace Glueck teaching art, writer Charles Simmons teaching poetry and literary agent Tom Wallace lecturing on American history. In its inaugural year, of the 31 students who started the course, 17 completed it; six months after graduation only one of the students was not enrolled in college, working full time or both. Shorris displays a passion for his subject and a finely honed intellect, battling common misconceptions with acute reason. ""Since no one will help them,"" he concludes, ""the poor have no alternative but to learn politics. It is the way out of poverty, and into a successful, self-governing life."" First serial to Harper's, Poets & Writers and Networker. (Oct.) FYI: Sections of this book were featured in eight weekly installments on NPR's ""Marketplace.""
Reviewed on: 09/29/1997
Release date: 10/01/1997
Genre: Nonfiction
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