Placing Jack Kerouac’s representations of poverty in dialogue with the work of anthropologist Oscar Lewis, originator of the “culture of poverty” thesis, this essay demonstrates that their disparate modes of allegiance with the poor share roots in the same unstable poverty ontology. Unable to fix the meaning of poverty as either as a natural condition or as a cultural product, Lewis and Kerouac each present poverty both as an abject expression of social disorder and as a point of vital social exteriority. Tracing this poverty ontology to Rousseau, the essay reveals how its instabilities spur aesthetic innovations—and political contradictions—in both writers.

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