“Picturing Poverty” addresses the striking absence of discussion of poverty in US cultural criticism by turning to the archive to examine historically significant and influential, but previously neglected, early photographs of the poor alongside more familiar literary texts. The essay demonstrates that the period’s photographic apprehension of the poor haunts literary depictions. Tracing rich, productive exchanges between nineteenth-century visual and literary texts, it argues that the photographic project of bearing witness to urban poverty helped authorize the emergence of realism as a nineteenth-century literary mode. “Picturing Poverty” illustrates this argument by analyzing the work of Horatio Alger, who plainly incorporates ideals of photographic legibility into his fictional narratives and vision of reform.

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