Crackers and squatters, rednecks and hillbillies, sandhillers and mudsills, clay eaters and hoe wielders: America has developed a rich vocabulary to describe one part of its permanent underclass. The epithet that subsumes them all, to borrow the title of Nancy Isenberg’s formidable and truth-dealing new book, is white trash.
Isenberg’s project in “White Trash: A 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” is to retell United States history in a manner that not only includes the weak, the powerless and the stigmatized, but also places them front and center.
As such, she has written an eloquent volume that is more discomforting and more necessary than a semitrailer filled with new biographies of the founding fathers and the most beloved presidents. Viewed from below, a good angle for no one, America’s history is usefully disorienting and nearly always appalling. “White Trash” will have you squirming in your chair.
Isenberg is a professor of American history at Louisiana State University. Her books include a well-regarded biography of Aaron Burr. Her own class background goes unmentioned in “White Trash.” This study does not require the emotional accelerant of memoir.
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Like Howard Zinn in “A People’s History of the United States” (1980), Isenberg presents an alternative interpretation of American history. Unlike Zinn, she is not interested in crusaders and labor organizers and politicians of a socialist bent. Do not come to her book to learn about the Wobblies. The story she tells is more intimate. It’s an analysis of the intractable caste system that lingers below the national myths of rugged individualism and cities on hills.
Isenberg contends that adults in America are spoon-fed their history as if they were toddlers. We are eager consumers of the national hagiography. She subverts this hagiography at every turn, starting at the beginning.
America’s colonial beginnings tend to be viewed, Isenberg writes, through the “beliefs of those principled leaders molded in bronze — the John Winthrops and William Penns — who are lionized for having projected the enlarged destinies of their respective colonies.”
Yet she demonstrates that most early settlers did not buy into these destinies. Nor did most come to escape religious persecution. “During the 1600s,” she writes, “far from being ranked as valued British subjects, the great majority of early colonists were classified as surplus population and expendable ‘rubbish.’ ”
Many were indentured servants. Others were “roguish highwaymen, mean vagrants, Irish rebels, known whores and an assortment of convicts shipped to the colonies for grand larceny or other property crimes.” Others were simply lazy — “idlers,” in the lingo of the time. They would rather drink rum than clear an acre of pine trees.
America did not develop a House of Lords, yet we imported the rigging of the British class system, Isenberg argues. This was hardly a land of equal opportunity. Brutal labor awaited most migrants. There was little social mobility.
“Puritan religious faith did not displace class hierarchy, either; the early generations of New Englanders did nothing to diminish, let alone condemn, the routine reliance on servants or slaves,” she observes. “Land was the principal source of wealth, and those without any had little chance to escape servitude. It was the stigma of landlessness that would leave its mark on white trash from this day forward.”
From this beginning, Isenberg moves confidently forward through, for example, the class issues that undergirded the Civil War and the popular eugenics movement — favored by Theodore Roosevelt — that marked many as targets for sterilization. Slavery and racism are hardly discounted in this book, but she maintains her focus on poor whites.
She singles out North Carolina as “what we might call the first white trash colony.” It was swampy and, thanks to its shoal-filled shoreline, lacked a major port. It had no real planter class. Its citizens were viewed as sluggards, “cowardly Blockheads” in the words of one early writer. Another referred to the state as the lawless “sinke of America.”
Isenberg moves through the Great Depression, pausing to admire James Agee’s complex yet urgent nonfiction account of the lives of poor tenant farmers in Alabama, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” (1941). Elvis arrives. So does Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.
Trailer parks, redolent of “liberty’s dark side,” come under her appraisal, as do movies like “Deliverance.” (She finds its redneck caricatures to be loathsome.) The careers of Dolly Parton, Jimmy Carter, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Bill Clinton are analyzed. Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky resulted in a spectacle that the author likens to a “white trash outing on the grand national stage.”
She considers the phenomenon of Sarah Palin, and reality television shows like “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and “Duck Dynasty.” Donald J. Trump the politician is not on this book’s radar, yet Isenberg writes in her Palin section: “When you turn an election into a three-ring circus, there’s always a chance the dancing bear will win.”
Throughout this volume, there is an awareness of a cruel aspect of our moral complexion. “Americans not only scrambled to get ahead,” she writes, “they needed someone to look down on.” Gore Vidal put this another way: “It is not enough merely to win; others must lose.”
Isenberg does not skimp on economic analysis. She notes how the central engines of our economy, from slave-owning planters up through today’s bank and tax policies, have systematically harmed the working poor. “We have to wonder,” she writes about her book’s subjects, “how such people exist amid plenty.”
Part of her answer is the “backlash that occurs when attempts are made to improve the conditions of the poor,” from the New Deal through Obamacare. “Government assistance is said to undermine the American dream,” she writes, adding: “Wait. Undermine whose American dream?”
This estimable book rides into the summer doldrums like rural electrification. It reminds us that, as Simon Schama wrote, venting his dislike of “Downton Abbey,” “History’s meant to be a bummer, not a stroll down memory lane.”
“White Trash” is indeed a bummer, and a thoroughly patriotic one. It deals in the truths that matter — which is to say, the uncomfortable ones.
“White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” by Nancy Isenberg (460 pages; Viking; $28)