Poverty itself is rarely the main theme of a literary work. Instead, it is usually a subtheme which arises from the fact that the main character or group in the work is poor. It seems that, usually, poverty is treated as either a cause of the main theme or an effect of the main theme, but rarely simply as the main theme. For example, a work that deals with an abusive family may emphasize the family’s economic condition only to show a reason for their abusive behavior.
Another noteworthy item regarding poverty as a theme in literature is that it is rarely found before the late nineteenth century in North American writing. This may be at least partially the result of the fact that before major urbanization caused by the industrial revolution, poverty was not a social or political issue, even though it was present. Another contributing factor to this absence before the late 1800’s may be that most early American writers were of the higher classes, writing as a supplement to or a diversion from their careers.
Although all poor people share common characteristics—such as lack of money and resources, insufficient food, clothes, and shelter, and an identity of a social outcast—it is still difficult to make generalizations when dealing with the theme in literature. This is due to the different causes of poverty and the ways in which they are portrayed in literary works. Often, the state of poor African Americans is shown to be the result of years of slavery and then continued oppression and lack of opportunity. The condition of impoverished Native Americans is shown to have been caused by the invasion of the Europeans and their progressive campaigns to relocate Native Americans to reservations of barren land. When poor whites are portrayed in literature, they are often characterized as victims of environmental conditions such as drought, or of some kind of physical or mental impairment, or they may be portrayed simply as lazy.