The Glass Castle
posted by Hosea Harvey
Just a few years behind schedule, I’ve just finished reading “The Glass Castle.” It’s one of the very few books I’ve read for fun recently. And it is remarkable for many reasons – one of which is that it contextualizes much about American political development and the (deliberate) absence of the American welfare state in the central lives of its very poverty-stricken central characters during the 1960′s – 1970′s. It is one of the few memoirs I’ve read that simply illuminates the struggles of a recently by-gone era in ways that remind us how differently communities were structured prior to the full implementation of government anti-poverty laws that we now take for granted. Along with “Black Boy: American Hunger” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (both from slightly earlier times), “The Glass Castle” effectively provides a memoirist’s detailed window on neglected populations living in decidedly unglamorous geographic and social communities.
“The Glass Castle” is a teaching tool in many ways – especially for some of us who grew up in a time when Head Start, school “free lunch”, and other related government programs were a social and legal norm. And, for better or worse, and despite recent threats (see, r.e., http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/11/us/politics/11headstart.html?_r=1), many of those core anti-poverty programs are such settled law that few members of either major party would seriously consider outright eliminating them. And so it is that we take the programs’ existence as a political and legal given, and the problems that created such programs become a *somewhat* distant memory. We certainly still have poverty and inequality in America, although it appears that these programs have served to partially mitigate their effects.
It is against the backdrop of the brutal descriptions of poverty and dysfunction in “The Glass Castle” that makes me wonder how memoirists will write about the great American social inequality problems of our time (e.g., healthcare, education, immigration) and whether government, law, and/or courts served to provide effective solutions. Or, have we now reached the point that since starvation-level poverty in America has been reduced substantially, we can no longer agree on common grounds for reducing social inequality without the bitterest of political debates? One thing is for certain – the memoirs of today’s generation certainly won’t sound much like “The Glass Castle” and, for better or worse, I suspect that’s a government intervention we can all agree with.