HUNGER by James Vernon


A Modern History
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From British academic Vernon, a dense social history of hunger in Britain from the mid 19th century to the 1940s.

Less than 200 years ago, Vernon notes, people dying of hunger were considered to be something less than human: “Their vulnerability to acts of nature or providence, illustrated only their lack of industry and moral fiber.” The classical political economy of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus had established hunger as an avoidable man-made phenomenon. However, by the 1840s, the humanitarian reaction against the New Poor Law and the famine in Ireland put a face to those dying of starvation. A new generation of crusading journalists such as Vaughan Nash, Henry Nevinson and Henry Brailsford published shocking exposés, and famine in Ireland and India became identified with the failure of British colonial rule. May 1905 saw the first Hunger March, as hungry unemployed boot-workers marched from Raund (Leicestershire) to London, aiming to refute the claim that the unemployed were degenerate. Hunger strikes spread from suffragettes to Irish republicans, and Indians used their deep tradition of fasting and hunger striking to dramatize the illegality of colonial rule. After identifying the humanitarian concern and the advent of the modern welfare state, Vernon moves to the science of nutrition, or dietetics, which measured a minimum nutritional standard and was used to calculate the social costs of hunger in terms of productivity, efficiency and social stability. By the 1920s, hunger was redefined in terms of quality of diet. The World Wars saw the introduction of “collective feeding,” i.e., factory canteens and school meals, and the 1940s saw the rise of domestic science and the efficient kitchen. Throughout the book, Vernon focuses in close academic detail on the precarious achievements of the British welfare state and the United Nations.

From starvation to malnutrition to dieting, the knotty, slippery struggle to define and regulate hunger in the modern world.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-674-02678-0
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2007