Jack Kerouac, Oscar Lewis, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau? Aaron Chandler’s “Slum Simulacra: Jack Kerouac, Oscar Lewis, and Cultures of Poverty” offers a wildly engaging story about the genealogy of the aspirations and contradictions behind twentieth-century American countercultural thinking about the question of poverty. Juxtaposing Jack Kerouac’s literary manifesto On the Road with Oscar Lewis’s anthropological works in Five Families and Children of Sanchez, where the phrase culture of poverty was first coined—and rooting both in what the author calls “Rousseau’s divided property metaphysics”—this essay shows how conservative attitudes toward poverty is nowhere as interesting, or as complex, or as vexing as liberal, progressive attempts to grapple with poverty.

The author traces the aspirations, contradictions, and ironies that dog the legacies of both Kerouac’s and Lewis’s “field works”: how the novel that ignited the birth of American postwar counterculture was itself based on a racially and economically problematic (not to mention...

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