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Hunger: A Modern History

Author(s):Vernon, James
Reviewer(s):Cuff, Timothy

Published by EH.NET (August 2008)

James Vernon, Hunger: A Modern History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. xii + 369 pp. $30 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-674-02678-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Timothy Cuff, Department of History, Westminster College.

Few economic historians spend much time with works grounded in the insights of Michel Foucault. Yet, James Vernon’s Hunger: A Modern History, a self-described post-cultural history (p . ix), while not a history of hunger as most economic historians would conceptualize it, does provide us with a fascinating review of the evolution of the concept of hunger in the West. Vernon, Professor of History and Director of the Center for British Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, elucidates how evolving perceptions of hunger, and perceptions of hunger’s history, have been utilized in a variety of political and social debates and movements. Taking “the nutritional history of modernity as a given,” (p. 4) Vernon believes that hunger is not only “a material reality of the human body” (p. 7) but “a cultural category.” The book’s goal is to illuminate how this cultural category has “generated its own history,” has been used in a variety of political debates and through these struggles “produced its own networks of power, its own political constituencies, its own understanding of the responsibilities of government, and its own forms of statecraft” (p. 7). Vernon seeks to provide a history that shows the multi-faceted beginnings, varied supports, and “precarious” status of the British welfare state and which moves the current political debate in Britain over that system beyond simple Manichaean terms. Economic historians are not his primary audience but would benefit from an exposure to these ideas.

Organized into eight substantive chapters, with a preface and dense and valuable conclusion, Hunger focuses on the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. (“Modern” history then reflects the book’s chronological coverage, but not its post-modern approach.) Geographically, the focus is on Britain and its colonies in the first part of the work, but later chapters shift attention back to the mother country [1] and the perceptions behind and rationale for development of the British welfare state. Vernon is interested in explaining, how the unemployed, hungry man (gender is important here) in the early twentieth century is a sympathetic figure rather than, as was the case a century earlier, a figure to be reviled as lazy, ignorant, and morally deficient. Additionally, how do the “hungry” become “the undernourished,” “the malnourished,” and even later, “the food insecure?” After this shift in perspective and definition, or more appropriately from Vernon’s perspective, via this shift, social support of the hungry (the undernourished, the malnourished) [2] become possible politically within Britain.

Chapters One through Five, organized somewhat but not purely chronologically, focus on developing shifts in the popular and elite view of the hungry and efforts to use these new understandings for political effect. Key is Vernon’s description of how the Malthusian view of hunger, described here as a natural force operating against the lazy, was challenged by news reporting, initially from distant places in the empire. Hunger was portrayed not as a normal condition for some of the population, but as a “political failure” which justified collective ameliorative action. Reporters personalized the hungry, making them figures of sympathy. Additionally, once hunger had been framed as “political failure” then groups seeking favor from the government or even a change of government could use being hungry as a vehicle of political protest. Hunger strikes by Indian and Irish colonials seeking independence and by British suffragettes are presented as early examples. Once sympathy was developed for the mother country’s children in the imperial holdings, only then could the hungry within Britain itself be described, as “not well served.” The very late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw struggles over the definition of hunger, the emergence of undernutrition as a category, and then the development of a distinction between undernutrition and malnutrition. The latter is based on the difference between a thermodynamic and biochemical understanding of nutrition (calories versus vitamins and nutrients). As might be anticipated, there was political value in each of the competing definitions for the various parties involved in their development and application. Chapter Five concludes a series of chapters which trace the changing understanding of hunger in Britain. (As the leading imperial power, Vernon believes Britain set the tone for the world during this period, while he acknowledges developments elsewhere.). During the 1930s through the 1950s, the hungry were “rediscovered” in Britain (in part through hunger marches) and the nation began national nutrition planning (calories, vitamins/minerals and for the first time, taste) which fit into plans for reconstructing Europe (and to a degree the entire world) in the aftermath of World War II.

The remaining chapters, more topically organized, describe the consequences of the shifting British views of hunger. The most explicit use of Foucault’s perspective comes in Chapter 6 in which Vernon documents the institutional frameworks via which Britons were fed communally (workhouses, schools, factories and even “community restaurants”). While personal nutrition was to be advanced through the serving of nutritionally appropriate meals, so too was social efficiency and control of the individual. Such feeding regimes were more about (perceived) good nutrition than about “good eating.” This is a standard Foucaultian interpretation; institutions of care are at least equally institutions of control. The gendered nature of this topic is most evident in Chapter Seven which details efforts, primarily during the twentieth century, to further develop and disseminate nutritional standards. Women, particularly housewives, were both the battleground and the foot soldiers in this contest. Governments sought to win women’s hearts and minds for “appropriate” nutritional practices and enlist them in the cause of rearing children who would follow nutritional science’s best practices. Such efforts took place, however, within the context of a seemingly never to be resolved debate over whether poor nutrition was a function of poor choices (resulting from a lack of education or moral weakness) or of poverty and thus whether markets and better education or government assistance were the right solution to the problem.

The final substantive chapter also describes a time of struggle over ideas, but in this case the struggle is over the historical interpretation of the “Hungry 30s.” This struggle is of particular importance because it is the narrative of the 1930s and the widely accepted perception of widespread, even nearly universal, working class hunger during that decade that, along with World War II’s sense of shared suffering, that helped build support for the post-war British welfare state. Vernon notes that this system was based on “lack of hunger” as a social right not the amelioration of hunger as a form of social control. Vernon notes that the 1970s reinterpretation of the “Hungry 30s” from a period of shared undernutrition to one of only isolated privation occurred simultaneously with efforts to dismantle the British welfare state. This was, in his view, not coincidental.

An economic historian, not fully conversant with the contemporary debate over the politics of the British welfare state, I do not feel qualified to assess whether Vernon has met his goal of advancing that debate. As an outsider, the book is clearly written and thoroughly documented. His argument is clear and well supported. For economic historians the value of the book, beyond increasing our understanding of shifts in the nature of the meaning of hunger, may well be as a case study of how “academic” debates (over the “standard of living” or “scientific” definitions of nutrition) are utilized by the larger culture, crudely as cudgels or in a more nuanced fashion as unspoken or “obvious” assumptions, to undergird, protect, or advance the political and social agendas of various elements of society. Economic historians interested in how our work gets “used” (in the many meanings and connotations of that term) could benefit from spending time with this book, using it as a mirror to see our post-modern reflection.

That is not so to say that the book’s description of the impact of perception could not be enhanced by the addition of more data. While Vernon accepts “the nutritional history of modernity as a given” (p. 4), even citing a series of recent histories of diet and nutrition in Britain including several anthropometric works [3], an economic historian might be troubled by the lack of any description of co-movement of levels of nutrition and the willingness of the population to accept “hunger” as a “political problem.” While Vernon clearly shows the vehicles by which contemporary writers sought to modify their readers’ perception of the “hungry,” might it also be that populations are only willing to see or perceive hunger as a “problem” when the vast majority do not experience it personally. If everyone is hungry, then maybe it is not a political problem, it is just life. (This, obviously, is also conditioned by the underlying political system operating at the time.) Shifts in the underlying level of nutrition might also be important for understanding the shifts and timing of focus from hunger to undernutrition and eventually to malnutrition. Some explicit link between the shifting use of these terms and facts on the ground would enlighten us about social norms as well as the existing social situation. Vis-a-vis hunger, the Haitian creole proverb reminds, “A full stomach says, ‘A ripe guava has worms,’ while an empty one says, ‘Let me see.'” In relation to histories of hunger, a cultural historian says that the perception of hunger matters, to which the economic historian says, “True, but, let me see (the data).” Economic historians might have preferred this volume, as written, to have been entitled, Hunger: A Post-Modern History of a Concept. However, Vernon’s conceptualization of the issue is one from which we can benefit.


1. From the cultural perspective, this term itself is laden with affective import vis-a-vis the hunger of “her [colonial] children,” as mothers not only give life but also sustain their offspring.

2. “Food insecurity” does not become possible, because it has not been defined, until after the period about which Vernon is writing.

3. Although, a footnote identifies Robert W. Fogel as “Roger.”

Timothy Cuff is Associate Professor of History at Westminster College (Pennsylvania). He is the author of The Hidden Cost of Economic Development: The Biological Standard of Living in Antebellum Pennsylvania (Ashgate, 2005).

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Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII