cover image Hunger: A Modern History

Hunger: A Modern History

James Vernon, . . Harvard/Belknap, $29.95 (369pp) ISBN 978-0-674-02678-0

We think of hunger and famine as symptoms of a failed economy and government. But shifting cultural perceptions of hunger are historical agents in their own right, as this probing study, concentrating on 19th- and 20th-century Britain, shows. Berkeley historian Vernon starts with premodern notions of hunger as divine punishment for sin or a Malthusian corrective for a lazy, overbreeding proletariat. This changed, he contends, with the 19th-century “humanitarian discovery of hunger” thanks to sensational newspaper stories of women and children, and later honest working men, starving through no fault of their own. Famines in Ireland and India fueled nationalist criticisms of British imperial rule, and suffragist hunger strikers made starvation a symbol of moral authority against an unjust state. Later, the nascent science of nutrition reimagined hunger in terms of a nutritional minimum that government should supply, and reformers made their efforts to eliminate hunger the rationale and the centerpiece of Britain's emerging welfare state. Following Michel Foucault, Vernon sees this history as a case study in social democracy's entanglement in liberalism, market ideology and elite demands for social discipline. Some of his arguments are weakly supported—was premodernity really so complacent about hunger?—and his topic rambles as far afield as kitchen appliances. Still, Vernon offers much lucid, trenchant rethinking on a resonant subject. 34 b&w illus. (Nov.)