"A profound book.... It will break your heart but also leave you with hope." —J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy
"[A] deeply empathetic book." —The Economist
With stark photo essays and unforgettable true stories, Chris Arnade cuts through "expert" pontification on inequality, addiction, and poverty to allow those who have been left behind to define themselves on their own terms.
After abandoning his Wall Street career, Chris Arnade decided to document poverty and addiction in the Bronx. He began interviewing, photographing, and becoming close friends with homeless addicts, and spent hours in drug dens and McDonald''s. Then he started driving across America to see how the rest of the country compared. He found the same types of stories everywhere, across lines of race, ethnicity, religion, and geography.
The people he got to know, from Alabama and California to Maine and Nevada, gave Arnade a new respect for the dignity and resilience of what he calls America''s Back Row--those who lack the credentials and advantages of the so-called meritocratic upper class. The strivers in the Front Row, with their advanced degrees and upward mobility, see the Back Row''s values as worthless. They scorn anyone who stays in a dying town or city as foolish, and mock anyone who clings to religion or tradition as naïve.
As Takeesha, a woman in the Bronx, told Arnade, she wants to be seen she sees herself: "a prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God." This book is his attempt to help the rest of us truly see, hear, and respect millions of people who''ve been left behind.
“Dignity is ‘about’ inequality in much the same way that James Agee’s
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—a seminal study of tenant farmers in Alabama, illustrated with stark photographs by Walker Evans—was ‘about’ the Great Depression. Both works illuminate the reality of political and economic forces that might seem familiar in outline, by showing their effects on ordinary people.”
”Like Orwell, Mr. Arnade spent a long time with the people he would write about, and he renders them sharply, with an eye for revelatory detail.”
The Wall Street Journal
Dignity is not overtly political, but it’s almost certainly going to be the most important political book of the year.”
–Rod Dreher, author of
The Benedict Option
“Dignity is one of the best nonfiction books published in my lifetime.”
“A careful, quiet, admirable effort to understand and chronicle the lives of people living in de-industrialized and impoverished communities across the country.”
“Candid, empathetic portraits of silenced men, women, and children.”
Dignity is a profound book, taking us to parts of our country that many of our leaders never visit, and introducing us to people those same leaders don''t know. It will break your heart but also leave you with hope, because Chris Arnade''s ‘back row America’ contains not just struggle, but also perseverance, resilience, and love.”
–J.D. Vance, author of
“Since the 2016 presidential election, pundits have been speculating about what’s going on with America’s underclass. Chris Arnade actually asked them. In dozens of detailed, sensitively rendered case studies, Arnade’s subjects speak frankly about their lives, revealing that material resources and opportunities are sorely needed, but that the greater damage done to America’s poor and suffering people may be interior, even spiritual. In that sense,
Dignity—with all its tender focus on “back-row” people—says even more about America’s elite, and what they’ve wrought.”
The Washington Post
“At times difficult to read, because it brings fully into view people who many would rather not see,
Dignity guides us to forlorn places where our countrymen struggle to live lives of decency and self-respect, and calls for a deep reexamination of the kind of world that too often congratulates itself on its progress and enlightenment while keeping hidden the costs exacted upon the least among us.”
–Patrick J. Deneen, Professor of Political Science, University of Notre Dame
“The rise of populism drew long overdue attention to those forgotten and the left behind, only to reduce them to a political symbol over which vicious partisan battles are waged. Arnade''s book brings our focus back to the dignity and lives of ordinary people, who are still just as forgotten and left behind.”
–Angela Nagle, author of
Kill All Normies
"Chris Arnade''s remarkable journey from Wall Street banker to chronicler of ''back-row America'' teaches some important lessons to those in ‘the front row’: Even—or especially—on the edge of poverty, abuse, and addiction, our fellow citizens yearn for the same sense of community and human connectedness that we all desire. In a culture that celebrates material wealth and credentials, the immaterial still reigns supreme: faith, honor, place, and friendship. In setting out to learn from others, Chris Arnade learned much about himself, and we can all learn from
–Senator Tom Cotton
Chris Arnade is a freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared in
the New York Times,
Financial Times, and
Wall Street Journal among many others. He has a PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins University and worked for twenty years as a trader at an elite Wall Street bank before leaving in 2012 to document addiction in the Bronx.
I first walked into the Hunts Point neighborhood of the Bronx because I was told not to. I was told it was too dangerous, too poor, and that I was too white. I was told “nobody goes there for anything other than drugs and prostitutes.” The people directly telling me this were my colleagues (other bankers), my neighbors (other wealthy Brooklynites), and my friends (other academics). All, like me, successful, well-educated people who had opinions on the Bronx but had never really been there.
It was 2011, and I was in my eighteenth year as a Wall Street bond trader. My workdays were spent sitting behind a wall of computers, gambling on flashing numbers, in a downtown Manhattan trading floor filled with hundreds of others doing exactly the same thing. My home life was spent in a large Brooklyn apartment, in a neighborhood filled with other successful people.
I wasn’t in the mood for listening to anyone, especially other bankers, other academics, and the educated experts who were my neighbors. I hadn’t been for a few years. In 2008, the financial crisis had consumed the country and my life, sending the company I worked for, Citibank, into a spiral stopped only by a government bailout. I had just seen where our—my own included—hubris had taken us and what it had cost the country. Not that it had actually cost us bankers, or my neighbors, much of anything.
I had always taken long walks, sometimes as long as fifteen miles, to explore and reduce stress, but now the walks began to evolve. Rather than walk with some plan to walk the entire length of Broadway, or along the length of a subway line, I started walking the less seen parts of New York City, the parts people claimed were unsafe or uninteresting, walking with no goal other than eventually getting home. Along the walk I talked to whoever talked to me, and I let their suggestions, not my instincts and maps, navigate me. I also used my camera to take portraits of those I met, and I became more and more drawn to the stories people inevitably wanted to share about their life.
The walks, the portraits, the stories I heard, the places they took me, became a process of learning in a different kind of way. Not from textbooks, or statistics, or spreadsheets, or PowerPoint presentations, or classrooms, or speeches, or documentaries—but from people.
What I started seeing, and learning, was just how cloistered and privileged my world was and how narrow and selfish I was. Not just in how I lived but in what and how I thought.