This article considers texts written or sold by disabled Civil War veterans for their economic support as an understudied precursor to twentieth-century disability memoir and an instructive subgenre of the literature of poverty. These so-called mendicant texts challenged contemporary disability representations in both “empty sleeve” discourse and in US pension law, drawing attention to how economic structures shaped the experience of living with an impairment and to the social determinants of poverty. At the same time, mendicant texts stopped short of arguing for a wholesale reorganization of society; thus, they testify to the partial and uneven postbellum evolution in understandings of disability and poverty as social categories. If mendicant texts tell us about the historical circumstances of disability and its intersection with economic suffering, they also offer productive challenges to scholars studying life writing from the perspectives of US literary studies, disability studies, and poverty studies. While mendicant narratives’ ambiguous authorship and departures from the truth trouble expectations of authentic and resistant self-representation, these elements offer new insights into the rigid constraints upon acceptable disability presentation in this era, as well as the creative choices made by veterans who peddled literature in order to survive.

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