Down But Not Out
Community and the Upper Streets in Halifax, 1890-1914
Despite Halifax’s historical importance as a regional centre of economic and political activity, the city has received relatively little attention from social and urban historians in the last decade. David Hood’s Down but Not Out is one of the few recent works to attempt to remedy this paucity of scholarship. The book is a study of poverty and community in Halifax in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and is organized loosely around the lives of five Haligonians who consistently were in conflict with the law. Rather than being a detached academic history of Halifax at the turn of the century, Down but Not Out is a defence of the dignity of the poor and a call for compassionate tolerance and inclusion of the destitute in the 21st century.
Hood opens with a discussion of Judith Fingard’s 1989 The Dark Side of Life in Victorian Halifax. In a book aimed at a general audience, the emphasis on historiography so early in the work is a welcome surprise, though I wish the author had engaged with a wider variety of Canadian scholarship instead of concentrating so heavily on a single book written twenty years ago. Hood takes exception of Fingard’s suggestion that the poor were culturally and socially different from their respectable working-class neighbours. He argues that Fingard “ascribed agency to her underclass subjects, but she seems to see them as striving to operate outside of prevailing morality rather than attempting to fit in the best they could.” (9) Yes, much of Hood’s evidence actually supports Fingard’s argument, particularly his documentation of his subjects’ long-term and sustained involvement in the informal and illicit economies of urban Halifax. While there is much to be critiqued in Fingard’s interpretation of the character of the culture of the urban poor - particularly her use of the now-out-of-vogue sociological category of “underclass” - her suggestion that many of the city’s poor did not share an identical moral and political outlook with their middle-class neighbours does not deserve Hood’s outright dismissal. Certainly, her work would have benefitted from more nuance, but nothing in the work of either Fingard or Hood constitutes evidence that most of Halifax’s poorest residents simply wanted to be culturally middle-class and Hood’s own account obscures the culture of the very people he is hoping to rescue from the condescension of history.
Hood’s insistence on attacking Fingard’s interpretation of the values of Halifax’s destitute is as much a political and ethical concern as it is a historiographical one. He argues that it is important to “recognize [the extremely poor’s] efforts to follow prevailing norms and to empathize with their plight and in doing so generate at least the possibility of recognition and empathy in the present.” (14) What Hood leaves unsaid is his problematic assumption that the reader’s empathy for the turn-of-the-century poor is predicated on a sharing of values and goals, ignoring entirely the possibility of seeking solidarity despite the radical differences between the reader and the book’s subjects.
Central to Hood’s argument is the assumption that the residents of Halifax’s upper streets constituted a coherent community, but the author never provides a clear definition of what is meant by “community.” On an empirical level Down but Not Out lacks the geographic, demographic and economic details that one would expect from a book about a single Halifax neighbourhood, and the social and physical boundaries of the upper streets are never clear. More fundamentally, Hood never interrogates the historical and theoretical meanings of “community.” Similarly, the question of spatial differentiation and slum formation - all theoretical territory well mapped by critical geographers - is not at all discussed. The reader is left to guess at how one part of the city became home to so many brothels, bars and derelict buildings. While it is unfair to expect popular histories to delve into theoretical problems concerning spatiality and community, it would have been beneficial to jettison much of the historiographical detail and instead include at least some explanation of what was meant by terms like community, exclusion and, event, upper streets.
Hood’s prose is accessible, engaging, and passionate. This is not a book meant to be read with cold objectivity or academic detachment, and the author’s commitment to humanizing his subjects is obvious and effective. Unfortunately, the structure and organization of Down but Not Out makes it difficult to trace the actual narrative of the individual lives that Hood sets out to document. The book bounces between narrative and analysis, with the narrative itself split across too many subjects. As a result, the years and events in the lives of Hood’s subjects never coalesce into a coherent whole. Much of this problem is the result of the limited sources available on the lives of the extreme poor, and Hood’s attempt to recover the stories of people like Thomas Berrigan and Sarah Shepherd is commendable. However fractured, the anecdotes about the lives of the poor fill in many of the gaps concerning daily life in Halifax’s poorest neighbourhoods, and Hood does succeed in providing the reader with a visceral understanding of turn-of-the-century poverty.
Down but Not Out is a book that rightly will find enthusiastic readership among Haligonians with an interest in reading about the city’s less famous residents and events. The reasonable length of the book and its quick prose and clear style will also make Hood’s text a solid addition to the syllabus of undergraduate courses on Atlantic Canadian history. - Christopher L. Parsons, Trent University and Dalhousie University for Labour/LeTravail, Volume 70 (Fall 2012)