Review: "Hunger: A Modern History"
James Vernon’s Hunger: A Modern History attempts to address how the British perception of hunger has changed over nearly two centuries, and why hunger was instrumental in the development of the modern British welfare state. Vernon begins by focusing on how public opinion of hunger evolved from a Malthusian approach that regarded the starving as morally deprived, and how this notion quickly shifted as many British began viewing hunger with a more humanitarian approach. This shift, as Vernon argues, resulted in a newfound awareness of the British governmental policies of imperialism. Once people began to see the horrible effects these colonial practices had upon entire populations, Vernon demonstrates how the British people began to hold governmental policies at fault with regard to starvation and famine across the former Empire. By holding the British government accountable for their actions, Vernon demonstrates how policies of better nutrition, better feeding practices, and the modern British welfare state began to emerge as “the effectiveness of government” came “to be measured by the absence, not the presence, of hunger and famine” (Vernon, 42).
Hunger: A Modern History
Vernon uses multiple resources that include surveys, photos, news articles, and historical texts which help to substantiate his overall argument quite well. By using each of these sources in conjunction with Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith’s earlier views, Vernon is able to effectively demonstrate the changing public opinion of the British people from the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. Vernon also does an excellent job at explaining his thesis through numerous examples, and by approaching his topic in a chronological order. Furthermore, Vernon breaks each chapter into various subcategories, and offers a general summary in the closing of each chapter that allows the reader to effectively recall his main arguments. This is an important addition to the text since Vernon often goes into tremendous detail throughout each chapter, and typically takes multiple pages to demonstrate his various arguments. This, in turn, makes his book informative, but occasionally difficult to follow at times.
In closing, Vernon’s work is thought provoking and offers an opinion of hunger not typically undertaken by historians. Instead of simply looking at hunger and its negative effects upon the British population, Vernon instead attempts to address how hunger shaped the modern British state, politically, with its transformation of Great Britain from a liberal to social democracy. Instead of solely focusing on hunger being a result of historical British practices, Vernon seemingly demonstrates how British history, in turn, resulted from hunger itself.
All in all, I give Vernon's work 5/5 Stars and highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the history of famine and hunger across the modern era. Vernon's work is a remarkable piece of scholarly research that builds heavily upon years of esteemed scholarship. For that reason, it should not be missed. Definitely check it out if you get the opportunity to do so, as you will not be disappointed.
About the Author
James Vernon is a professor at the University of Berkeley, and teaches modern British history. He formally taught at the University of Manchester from 1984 to 2000. His interests with British history include the relationship between local, national, and imperial histories. Vernon completed Hunger: A Modern History in 2007, and has also wrote several other books and articles across his illustrious career.
Vernon also serves as editor for the "Berkeley Series in British Studies" and is a member of the editorial boards for the University of California's Social History, Twentieth Century British History, History Compass, and Journal of British Studies. He also works as a board member of the "Berkeley Faculty Association," and enjoys support from the British Academy, ESRC, ACLS, and NEH.
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Suggestions for Further Reading:
Collingham, Lizzie. Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Collingham, Lizzie. Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2011.
Collingham, Lizzie. The Taste of Empire: How Britain's Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. New York, New York: Basic Books, 2017.
Coogan, Tim Pat. The Famine Plot: England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy. New York, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2013.
Vernon, James. Hunger: A Modern History. London, England: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.
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