This book traces American writers' contributions and responses to the War on Poverty. Its title comes from the 1964 Opportunity Act, which established a network of federally funded Community Action Agencies that encouraged "maximum feasible participation" by the poor. With this phrase, the Johnson administration provided its imprimatur for an emerging model of professionalism that sought to eradicate boundaries between professionals and their clients—a model that appealed to writers, especially African Americans and Chicanos/as associated with the cultural nationalisms gaining traction in the inner cities. These writers privileged artistic process over product, rejecting conventions that separated writers from their audiences.
"Participatory professionalism," however, drew on a social scientific conception of poverty that proved to be the paradigm's undoing: the culture of poverty thesis popularized by Oscar Lewis, Michael Harrington, and Daniel Moynihan. For writers and policy experts associated with the War on Poverty, this thesis described the cultural gap that they hoped to close. Instead, it eventually led to the dismantling of the welfare state. Ranging from the 1950s to the present, the book explores how writers like Jack Kerouac, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Oscar Zeta Acosta, Alice Walker, Philip Roth, and others exposed the War on Poverty's contradictions during its heyday and kept its legacy alive in the decades that followed.
"The works analyzed here—many of which I have taught often and know well—come alive in new ways as Stephen Schryer puts them in conversation with each other and with their historical era. Here's one reliable sign of success: I am sure that I will read these texts differently from now on."
"Stephen Schryer introduces new research into the literature of poverty, demonstrating how a generation of writers engaged with the ideals and problems of welfare-state liberalism. Well-written and wide-ranging, his book shows that confronting poverty alters literary discourse, just as it fractures assumptions based on cultural identity and political sensibility."