“Philanthropy, Welfare, and Early Twentieth-Century Literature” furthers the discussion of modernist literature and its relationship to modernity by showing the role of the philanthropy-versus-welfare debates in early twentieth-century fiction. I examine works by Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, Rebecca West, Ernest Hemingway, Anzia Yezierska, Edith Wharton, Wyndham Lewis, and E.M. Forster in the context of philanthropy, the birth of welfare, the professionalization of social work, the crisis of liberalism, the disintegration of the British Empire, immigration in the United States, and World War I. In addition to my inquiry into the historically constructed discourses and practices of philanthropy, I position my discussion of literature in relationship to recent critiques of Habermas’s account of the disintegration of the bourgeois public sphere and to Derrida’s work on the gift, and I argue that artistic engagements with philanthropy helped define twentieth-century notions about how to govern; how to conceive of class and gender boundaries; how to give; and how to market one’s labor, whether physical or intellectual.
Early twentieth-century writers participated in the debates that shaped such milestones of contemporary social policy as the 1911 Insurance Act in Britain and Progressive and New Deal legislation in the United States. In order to trace the writers’ engagement with this “New Philanthropy,” I study recent scholarly works as well as contemporary publications like The Charities Review, The Salvation Army Yearbook, C.S. Loch’s Annual Charities and Digest, Burdett’s Hospital and Charities; modernist periodicals such as Blast , The Enemy, and The Egoist; and government documents like the “Louisiana Mothers’ Pension Statute” (1939) and the Hansard Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Law and Relief of Distress and the “Louisiana Mothers’ Pension Statute” (1909).
For most modern and modernist writers, as well as for Derrida, neither the state-based economy of gift-giving nor philanthropy represents true giving. As phenomena of giving, both philanthropy and welfare annul the gift. Yet modern writers’ discourses of philanthropy, welfare, and altruism are movements towards the promise of the gift; and just as they render an account of the (im)possibility of true giving, they carve out a place for modernist subjectivity, the modernist artist, the “New Woman,” the poor, the immigrant, and the colonial subject in the turbulent first decades of the twentieth century.