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Markets and Players: Plotting Poverty and Citizenship in Matthew Desmond's Evicted

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 April 2021

English Department, Boston College. Email:
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This essay examines the narrative and representational tactics of Matthew Desmond's Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016). Rather than read this book solely in terms of its findings, this essay argues that Desmond attempts to stylistically embody the relationship between market culture, eviction, and the political delegitimation of the poor. Evicted also reworks the sociological “community study” by refashioning literary templates from writers such as Jacob Riis, Charles Dickens, Jane Jacobs, and Hannah Arendt. By fusing such debts together, Evicted powerfully connects its account of eviction's toll on the broader but too often overlooked relationship between poverty and citizenship.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press in association with the British Association for American Studies.

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1 Larson, Jonathan, “Rent,” in Larson, Rent: The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Broadway Musical (New York: Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, 2008), 22Google Scholar.

2 Emily Badger, Claire Cain Miller, Adam Pearce and Kevin Quealy, “Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys,” New York Times, 19 March 2018, at

3 Bellamy, Edward, Looking Backward 2000–1887 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 7CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Desmond, Matthew, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (New York: Crown Publishers, 2016)Google ScholarPubMed, all further citations parenthetically in the text. Evicted won both the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

5 Brooks, Peter, Reading for the Plot (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1984)Google Scholar, at Hathi Trust Digital Archive, accessed 24 Jan. 2021, xii, 5, 11, 19.

6 Barbara Ehrenreich, “No Place Like Home,” New York Times, 28 Feb. 2016, 1, 22. On the crossover book see Lang, James M., “Adventures in Trade Publishing,” Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 36, 3 (April 2005), 139–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Eyal Press, “Will This New Book Change the National Debate on Poverty?” The Nation, 29 March 2016, at; Konczal, Mike, “The Violence of Eviction,” Dissent, 63, 3 (Summer 2016), 137–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Carlos Lozada, “Losing a Home, Losing Hope,” Washington Post, 6 March 2016, B8; Jordan Michael Smith, “‘Evicted’ Follows the Harrowing, Heartbreaking Cases of Eight Families,” Christian Science Monitor, 2 March 2016.

8 On the historical development of these norms see esp. Frus, Phyllis, The Politics and Poetics of Journalistic Narrative (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; on their effects on writing about poverty see Salamon, Gayle, “Here Are the Dogs: Poverty in Theory,” differences, 21, 1 (2010), 169–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and my “‘Out There’: Transnationalism and the Other America,” in Hans Krabbendam, Jaap Verheul, and Hans Bak, eds., Through the Looking Glass: American Studies in Transcultural Perspective (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1999), 244–57.

9 Michael Harrington, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (Baltimore: Penguin, 1963); William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987); and Michael B. Katz, The Undeserving Poor: America's Enduring Confrontation with Poverty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

10 On these conventions see Judith Goode, “How Urban Ethnography Counters Myths about the Poor,” in George Gmelch and Walter P. Zenner, eds., Urban Life: Readings in the Anthropology of the City (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 2002), 185–201; and Wacquant, Loïc, “Scrutinizing the Street: Poverty, Morality, and the Pitfalls of Urban Ethnography,” American Journal of Sociology, 107, 6 (May 2002), 14681532CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. 1524–27.

11 For example, Emma Larkin, Everything Is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma (New York: Penguin, 2010); George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013); and Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (New York: W. W. Norton, 2017). The titular past participle also appears in Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2011); and Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting By in America (New York: Henry Holt, 2001).

12 Riis is mentioned several times in Evicted (115, 311, 375–76 n. 2). Citations in this paragraph from Jacob Riis, The Making of an American (New York: Macmillan, 1904), 119–22.

13 On the connections between Riis's techniques and Christian rhetoric see Gregory S. Jackson, “Cultivating Spiritual Sight: Jacob Riis's Virtual-Tour Narrative and the Visual Modernization of Protestant Homiletics,” Representations, 83 (Summer 2003), 126–66.

14 All of the names of Desmond's central players have been fictionalized.

15 “Ethnographic realism” is a category used across the disciplines; see, for example, Eason, David, “The New Journalism and the Image-World: Two Modes of Organizing Experience,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 1, 1 (1984), 5165CrossRefGoogle Scholar; James Clifford's introduction to James Clifford and George E. Marcus, eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 23–25; and Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 53. On the tradition of the community study see Barrett, Stanley R., “Community: The Career of a Concept,” Anthropologica, 52, 1 (2010), 113–25Google Scholar.

16 Dickens's journalistic contemporaries, and these conventions, are described in Christopher Herbert, Culture and Anomie: Ethnographic Imagination in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991), 204–52. Two other well-known accounts of poverty that approach the inner city as a bounded space are Alex Kotlowitz, There Are No Children Here: A Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America (New York: Doubleday, 1991); and Darcy Frey, The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994).

17 The norms commonly heralded for nonfiction are spelled out explicitly in Mark Kramer, “Breakable Rules for Literary Journalists,” Nieman StoryBoard, 1 Jan. 1995, at

18 Not a few reviewers (e.g. Konczal, Smith) observed that Desmond had designed his style in order to foreground his informants and their voices; see also Sharon A. Pocock, “Direct Observer but Self-Effacing Narrator,” in Legal Communication and Rhetoric: JALWD, 14 (2017), 145–48.

19 Henry George, Progress and Poverty (London: C.K. Paul & Co., 1881); Henry Demarest Lloyd, Wealth against Commonwealth (New York: Harpers, 1894); Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York, Meridian Books, 1958), HeinOnline, at, accessed 4 Feb. 2021. See also Richard J. Bernstein, “Hannah Arendt on the Stateless,” Parallax, 11, 1 (Jan. 2005), 46–60; and René Boomkens, “Mediacity: On the Discontinuous Continuity of the Urban Public Sphere,” in Judith Thissen, Robert Zwijnenberg, and Kitty Zijlmans, eds., Contemporary Culture: New Directions in Arts and Humanities Research (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013), 19–37.

20 “Rent,” the OED reports, can be in English a “thing” (a noun) or a relation (a verb) – “[f]requently,” the Dictionary adds, “with the person as the indirect object.”

21 In Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (New York: Scribners, 1905), for instance, there is a neoclassical balancing of exterior and interior views, discussed adroitly in Judith Fryer, Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 55–94.

22 This motif of the city as a living organism is classically described in Phillip Fisher, Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 128–78.

23 See Pocock. We also read about Tobin Charney, the white owner of the trailer park Desmond studies, but he is far less visible as the book goes along.

24 A reader generously suggested that these inversions are a variety of chiasmus, but I am using “wraparound” – a term that social services also commonly use to characterize a “whole-of-life” approach to poverty – to refer more to spatial and plot-driven reversals that create a shift in perspective, often leading to a sense of entrapment or dysfunction. In video games, for example, wraparounds occur when players or characters traveling outside the boundaries of the screen then return on the opposite side of the screen. Desmond's term “actuator” (380 n. 1) also points to changes in scale: the term typically refers to something that requires minimal force yet creates large effects (for instance, a valve that releases steam to power an engine).

25 Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961), 14, 151.

26 On that ecological tradition see Jamin Creed Rowan, The Sociable City: An American Intellectual Tradition (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 99 ff. Arendt also complained that not only were displaced persons deprived of rights defined by a democratic community, but also they were recast as if “no longer belong[ing] to any community whatsoever.” Arendt, 295.

27 See, e.g., Kotlowitz, There Are No Children Here; Frey, The Last Shot.

28 Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism details the paradox that, right at the moment when national sovereignty was universally hailed, “residence” itself was said to be precisely what supposedly “stateless” populations lacked. Arendt called such populations “the most symptomatic group in contemporary politics.” Arendt, 275–76, 283, 286, 302. Desmond's discussion here also exposes one of the contradictions in what is customarily glossed as “community policing”: that police in such an approach often defer to local business leaders. I have written about this consequence in Cop Knowledge: Police Power and Cultural Narrative in Twentieth-Century America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 176–82.

29 Riesman, David, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961)Google Scholar.

30 See, for example, Catherine Belsey in Critical Practice (London: Methuen, 1980), 84: “The [realist] story moves inevitably towards closure which is also disclosure … recognizable as a reinstatement or development of the order which is understood to have preceded the events of the story itself.” For a summary of views on this reciprocity see Billy, Ted, A Wilderness of Words: Closure and Disclosure in Conrad's Short Fiction (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1997), 219–23Google Scholar.

31 Dickens, Charles, Hard Times, Norton critical edition, 2nd edn, ed. Ford, George and Monod, Sylvère (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990), 15Google Scholar.

32 Riis, Jacob, How the Other Half Lives (New York: Scribners, 1914), 114–15Google Scholar.

33 David Adler, “Who Profits from Poverty? On the Success of Matthew Desmond's ‘Evicted’,” Current Affairs, 20 June 2017, at; and Christian Schneider's review “Desmond's ‘Evicted’ Is a Flawed Masterpiece,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 11 April 2017, at

34 See, for instance, London, Jack, The People of the Abyss (New York: Macmillan, 1903), 41, 50Google Scholar.

35 Jameson, Fredric, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), 216Google Scholar.

36 Famously, the character that narrates this end to what is essentially a parody of Westerns is called “The Easterner.” Stephen Crane, “The Blue Hotel,” in Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry (New York: Library of America, 1984), 799–828, 828. The lines in the story offering a view from off-planet are at 822.

37 Ralph Ellison, “Richard Wright's Blues,” Antioch Review, 57, 3 (Summer 1999), 263–76.

38 Compare the refiguring of North and South in Wilkerson, Isabel, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (New York: Random House, 2010)Google Scholar, e.g. 233–34, 262, and ff.

39 See UNICEF's Measuring Child Poverty (May 2012), at, accessed 4 Feb. 2021.

40 On this point (382 n. 13), Desmond cites Jones, Jacqueline, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present, rev. edn (New York: Basic Books, 2010)Google Scholar, esp. 96.

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