Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mark Peel's "Miss Cutler and the Case of the Resurrected Horse"

Mark Peel is professor of modern cultural and social history and head of the School of History at the University of Liverpool. A former professor of history at Monash University, his books include The Lowest Rung: Voices of Australian Poverty.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Miss Cutler and the Case of the Resurrected Horse: Social Work and the Story of Poverty in America, Australia, and Britain, and reported the following: 
If it is difficult for any single page to encapsulate a book describing hundreds of encounters in five different cities and three continents, I am confident that page 99 of Miss Cutler and the Case of the Resurrected Horse gives its readers a reliable sense of the book’s themes and style. This is a history of what the social workers and charity investigators who encountered the poor during the 1920s and 1930s heard them saying and then formed what they heard—and misheard—into dramatized explanations of poverty. What we understand about poverty powerfully shapes what we think we should do about it, and this account of Melbourne, London, Boston, Minneapolis and Oregon shows that Australians, Americans and Britons agreed on some ideas and disagreed on others.

On page 99, readers find themselves in London, at the end of a chapter called ‘The Man With the Repulsive Face’. It features an impoverished young husband and father, William Rowthorn, who came to symbolize for a group of London social workers, employed by the Charity Organisation Society, the strange, hapless ways of the poor. In London, more than in the United States or Australia, the poor were seen at a distance and with a more or less dismissive disdain, ‘when they come close, or when they are tracked to where they live: behind things, under things, down the stairs, or surrounded by the debris of their hopeless lives. They “shamble” and “shuffle” on and off the stage, largely untouched by any attempt to help them, and probably cheerful, apart from the odd teary moment. They are disfigured and disarrayed, too fat or too thin, and distant and different enough to warrant such terms as “repulsive.” William Rowthorn’s rash might have been worse than many, but he was not alone in attracting a rather offhand entitlement. As the COS faced its own crisis in the 1920s and 1930s, that version of the poor would hardly waver’.

Miss Cutler’s raw material are thousands of case files, written by social workers who were normally trying very hard to understand and help the poor. They tell stories in these files, and it is from those stories that I show how ideas about the poor and their poverty differed and did not differ, changed and did not change, across place and time. I have turned some of those stories into scripts, dramatizing encounters in which there was always misapprehension, and often clumsiness and denial. But they also dramatize the difficulty—and the great significance—of listening to the poor and accepting that they might understanding something about poverty, its origins and especially its remedies.
Learn more about Miss Cutler and the Case of the Resurrected Horse at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue