White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

3.8 5
by Nancy Isenberg
     
 

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The New York Times Besteller

“This estimable book rides into the summer doldrums like rural electrification. . . . It deals in the truths that matter.”—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“With the election looming, this eye-opening investigation into our country’s entrenched social hierarchy is acutely relevant.”

Overview


The New York Times Besteller

“This estimable book rides into the summer doldrums like rural electrification. . . . It deals in the truths that matter.”—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“With the election looming, this eye-opening investigation into our country’s entrenched social hierarchy is acutely relevant.” –O Magazine

White Trash will change the way we think about our past and present.”
—T. J. Stiles, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Custer’s Trials

In her groundbreaking  bestselling history of the class system in America, Nancy Isenberg takes on our comforting myths about equality, uncovering the crucial legacy of the ever-present, always embarrassing—if occasionally entertaining—poor white trash.
 
“When you turn an election into a three-ring circus, there’s always a chance that the dancing bear will win,” says Isenberg of the political climate surrounding Sarah Palin. And we recognize how right she is today. Yet the voters boosting Trump have been a permanent part of our American fabric, argues Isenberg.

The wretched and landless poor have existed from the time of the earliest British colonial settlement to today's hillbillies. They were alternately known as “waste people,” “offals,” “rubbish,” “lazy lubbers,” and “crackers.” By the 1850s, the downtrodden included so-called “clay eaters” and “sandhillers,” known for prematurely aged children distinguished by their yellowish skin, ragged clothing, and listless minds.
 
Surveying political rhetoric and policy, popular literature and scientific theories over four hundred years, Isenberg upends assumptions about America’s supposedly class-free society––where liberty and hard work were meant to ensure real social mobility. Poor whites were central to the rise of the Republican Party in the early nineteenth century, and the Civil War itself was fought over class issues nearly as much as it was fought over slavery. Reconstruction pitted poor white trash against newly freed slaves, which factored in the rise of eugenics–-a widely popular movement embraced by Theodore Roosevelt that targeted poor whites for sterilization. These poor were at the heart of New Deal reforms and LBJ’s Great Society; they haunt us in reality TV shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty. Marginalized as a class, white trash have always been at or near the center of major political debates over the character of the American identity.
 
We acknowledge racial injustice as an ugly stain on our nation’s history. With Isenberg’s landmark book, we will have to face the truth about the enduring, malevolent nature of class as well.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Dwight Garner
Ms. Isenberg's project in White Trash: The 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…This estimable book rides into the summer doldrums like rural electrification. It reminds us that, as Simon Schama wrote…"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.
The New York Times Book Review - Thomas J. Sugrue
…Isenberg's story is [told]…with unusual ambition and (to use a class-laden term) in a masterly manner. Ranging from John Rolfe and Pocahontas to The Beverly Hillbillies, Isenberg…provides a cultural history of changing concepts of class and inferiority.
Publishers Weekly
★ 04/25/2016
Isenberg (Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr), professor of history at Louisiana State University, tackles a topic rarely addressed by mainstream American writing on race and class as she skillfully demonstrates that “class defines how real people live.” Opening with a myth-busting origin story, Isenberg reveals the ways English class divisions were transplanted and embraced in the colonies at the expense of the lower classes. Colonization and expansion were accomplished because elites believed the poor were valuable only for the labor they provided for the nation. Isenberg then shows how words such as squatter, cracker, and white trash are rooted in public discussions over politics and land. Eugenics entered the conversation in an early 20th-century effort to breed out misfits and undesirables, and the Great Depression forced reevaluations of poverty and what it meant to be a “poor white” in the 1930s. In the book’s final section, a delectable mixture of political and popular culture, Isenberg analyzes the “white trash” makeover of the late 20th century thanks to movies such as Smokey and the Bandit, politicians Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s televangelism. A Marxist analysis of the lumpenproletariat this is not, but Isenberg’s expertise particularly shines in the examinations of early America, and every chapter is riveting. Illus. Agent: Geri Thoma, Writers House. (June)
From the Publisher
"A bracing reminder of the persistent contempt for the white underclass." -The Atlantic

“An eloquent synthesis of the country’s history of class stratification, one that questions whether the United States is indeed a place where all are created equal. White Trash powerfully unites four centuries of history—economic, political, cultural, and pseudo-scientific—to show how thoroughly the notion of class is woven into the national fabric.” —The Boston Globe

“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 . . . This estimable book rides into the summer doldrums like rural electrification.”—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“[White Trash] sheds bright light on a long history of demagogic national politicking, beginning with Jackson. It makes Donald Trump seem far less unprecedented than today’s pundits proclaim.”—Slate

“Isenberg . . . has written an important call for Americans to treat class with the same care that they now treat race. . . . Her work may well help that focus lead to progress.” —TIME magazine

 
“With her strong academic background and accessible voice, Isenberg takes pains to reveal classism’s deep-seated roots.” Entertainment Weekly, “Must List”

“[White Trash] is a carefully researched indictment of a particularly American species of hypocrisy, and it’s deeply relevant to the pathologies of contemporary America.”—Christian Science Monitor

“What makes people whom Trump has never cared about before this election so eager to see him as their spokesman? What in tarnation do they see in his vague bluster and thinly coded racist remarks? For answers to these and other questions, look no further than Nancy Isenberg’s fascinating and unsettling new book . . . [a] meticulously researched survey of the class system in America.”—Atlanta Journal Constitution

“Here is a book that should forever change the way we think and talk about class, which Isenberg suggests is the rotting stage upon which American democracy will either stand or fall.” —The American Scholar

“It’s a contentious subject that deserves a larger academic discussion. With any luck, Isenberg’s White Trash will serve as the opening arguments from which a broader discussion arises.”—PopMatters

Library Journal
05/15/2016
Isenberg (Fallen Founder) sets out to find the lower classes that, over time, have been variously cast as degraded, despoiled, and even demented. In doing so, the author argues that their presence and persistence counters the promise of American progress, for it suggests that class was, and is, more resilient than the American Dream would have it. Failing populist moments, the white "trash" remained disfranchised and dismissed, or feared for their supposed debilitating effects on morality. Isenberg takes the long view, from the convicts that the British transported to the colonies to segregationists, "trailer trash," the friendly yokelism and folk "wisdom" of The Beverly Hillbillies and The Andy Griffith Show and now Duck Dynasty. The author largely identifies "white trash" as a Southern phenomenon (the urban poor are not part of the society surveyed) but provides an astonishingly wide and copious canvas by describing the ways "white trash" appeared or were seen as individuals of concern in popular culture, political rhetoric, scientific theories, pseudoscientific policies, and literature. The narrative incorporates people as varied as Lyndon B. Johnson, Harper Lee, and Tammy Faye Bakker to show that the exceptions to the supposed American exceptionalism were, and are, its fundamental fact and foil. VERDICT Essential reading for a new perspective on the role of class in American society.—Randall M. Miller, St. Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2016-04-13
A rigorously researched study of the entrenched system of racial classification that dispels many myths about American national identity.In this impressive work of social history, Isenberg (American History/Louisiana State Univ.; Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, 2007, etc.) challenges head-on America's "fable of class denial." From the first indentured servants brought to Plymouth and Jamestown to the caricatured hillbillies of Duck Dynasty, the existence of "waste" people, or impoverished, ignorant, landless whites, has persistently run against convenient notions of the upstanding American founder—i.e., moral, hardworking "entrepreneurial stewards of the exploitable land." Dumped on the Colonies, the vagrant, often criminal poor from England and elsewhere were considered expendable and often exploited. As a key to the story, Isenberg looks at the early settlement of North Carolina, which became a "renegade territory, a swampy refuge for the poor and landless," situated between elite Virginians and slaveholding "upstart" South Carolinians. Contrary to the mythmaking of the exceptional early American in writings by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson, based on theories of "good breeding" and yeomanry, a whole class of common people grew up as a byproduct of the slaveholding states, living on the margins of the plantations: dirt-poor Southerners (literally "clay-eaters") who were considered lazy and racially degenerate. Moreover, the enormous new swaths of Western land were largely populated by a new class of "squatters" or "crackers," considered "mangy varmints infesting the land" and represented by the first Westerner elected president, Andrew Jackson. Isenberg examines some surprising sources of these early stereotypes of white trash, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), in which the author "described poor whites as a degenerate class, prone to crime, immorality, and ignorance." From the eugenics movement to the rise of the proud redneck, Isenberg portrays a very real and significant history of class privilege in the United States. A riveting thesis supported by staggering research.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780670785971
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
06/21/2016
Pages:
480
Sales rank:
3,212
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Clinton’s embarrassing second term didn’t seem to provide lessons, insofar as the Republicans plunged ahead with their own (effectively) white trash candidate in 2008, Alaska governor Sarah Palin. The devastatingly direct Frank Rich of the New York Times referred to the Republican ticket as “Palin and McCain’s Shotgun Marriage.” Did the venerable John McCain of Arizona, ordinarily a savvy politician, have a lapse in judgment here? Slate produced an online video of Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, painting it as a forgettable wasteland, a place “to get gas and pee” before getting back on the road. Wasilla was elsewhere described as the “punch line for most redneck jokes told in Anchorage.” Erica Jong wrote in the Huffington Post, “White trash America certainly has allure for voters,” which explains the photoshopped image of Palin that appeared on the Internet days after her nomination. In a stars-and-stripes bikini, holding an assault rifle and wearing her signature black-rimmed glasses, Palin was one-half hockey mom and one-half hot militia babe.
 
News of the pregnancy of Palin’s teenage daughter Bristol led to a shotgun engagement to Levi Johnston, which was arranged in time for the Republican National Convention. Us Weekly featured Palin on the cover, with the provocative title, “Babies, Lies, and Scandal.” Maureen Dowd compared Palin to Eliza Doolittle of My Fair Lady fame, in getting prepped for her first off-script television interview. Could there be any more direct allusion to her questionable class origins? The Palin melodrama led one journalist to associate the Alaska clan with the plot of a Lifetime television feature. The joke was proven true to life two years later, when the backwoods candidate gave up her gig as governor and starred in her own reality TV show, titled Sarah Palin’s Alaska.
 
Palin’s candidacy was a remarkable event on all accounts. She was only the second female of any kind and the first female redneck to appear on a presidential ticket. John McCain’s advisers admitted that she had been selected purely for image purposes, and they joined the chorus trashing the flawed candidate after Obama’s historic victory. Leaks triggered a media firestorm over Palin’s wardrobe expense account. An angry aide categorized the Palins’ shopping spree as “Wasilla hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast to coast.”
 
The Alaskan made an easy and attractive target. Journalists were flabbergasted when she showed no shame in displaying astounding lapses in knowledge. Her bungled interview with NBC host Katie Couric represented more than gotcha journalism: Palin didn’t just misconstrue facts; she came across as a woman who was unable to articulate a single complex idea. (The old cracker slur as “idle-headed” seemed to fit.) But neither did Andrew Jackson run as an “idea man” in an earlier century, and it was his style of backcountry hubris that McCain’s staffers had been hoping to revive. Shooting wolves from a small plane, bragging about her love of moose meat, “Sarah from Alaska” positioned herself as a regular Annie Oakley on the campaign trail.
 
It was not enough to rescue her from the mainstream (what she self-protectively called “lamestream”) media. Sarah Palin did not have a self-made woman’s résumé. She could not offset the “white trash” label as the Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton could. She had attended six unremarkable colleges. She had no military experience (à la navy veteran Jimmy Carter), though she did send one son off to Iraq. Writing in the New Yorker, Sam Tanenhaus was struck by Palin’s self-satisfied manner: “the certitude of being herself, in whatever unfinished condition, will always be good enough.”
 
Maureen Dowd quipped that Palin was a “country-music queen without the music.” She lacked the self-deprecating humor of Dolly Parton—not to mention the natural talent. The real conundrum was why, even more than how, she was chosen: the white trash Barbie was at once visually appealing and disruptive, and she came from a state whose motto on license plates read, “The Last Frontier.” The job was to package the roguish side of Palin alongside a comfortable, conventional female script. In the hit country single “Redneck Woman” (2004), Gretchen Wilson rejected Barbie as an unreal middle-class symbol—candidate Palin’s wardrobe bingeing was her Barbie moment.
 
Her Eliza Doolittle grand entrance came during the televised debate with Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. As the nation waited to see what she looked like and how she performed, Palin came onstage in a little black dress, wearing heels and pearls, and winked at the camera. From the neck down she looked like a Washington socialite, but the wink faintly suggested a gum-chewing waitress at a small-town diner. Embodying these two extremes, the fetching hockey mom image ultimately lost out to what McCain staffers identified as both “hillbilly” and “prima donna.”
 
Sex formed a meaningful subtext throughout Palin’s time of national exposure. In terms of trash talk, daughter Bristol Palin’s out‑of‑wedlock pregnancy was handled rather differently from Bill Clinton’s legendary philandering. Bloggers muddied the waters by spreading rumors about Sarah’s Down syndrome child, Trig: “Was he really Bristol’s?” they asked. A tale of baby swapping was meant to suggest a new twist on the backwoods immorality of inbred illegitimacy. Recall that it was Bill Clinton’s mother, Virginia, whose pedigree most troubled the critics. The legacy held: the rhetoric supporting eugenics (and the sterilization laws that followed) mainly targeted women as tainted breeders.
 
Sarah Palin’s Fargo-esque accent made her tortured speech patterns sound even worse. Former TV talk show host Dick Cavett wrote a scathing satirical piece in which he dubbed her a “serial syntax killer” whose high school English department deserved to be draped in black. He wanted to know how her swooning fans, who adored her for being a “mom like me,” or were impressed to see her shooting wolves, could explain how any of those traits would help her to govern.
 
We had been down this road before as citizens and voters. “Honest Abe” Lincoln was called an ape, a mudsill, and Kentucky white trash. Andrew Jackson was a rude, ill-tempered cracker. (And like Palin, his grammar was nothing to brag about.) The question loomed: At what point does commonness cease to be an asset, as a viable form of populism, and become a liability for a political actor? And should anyone be shocked when voters are swept up in an “almost Elvis-sized following,” as Cavett said Palin’s were? When you turn an election into a three-ring circus, there’s always a chance that the dancing bear will win.

Meet the Author

Nancy Isenberg is the author of Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, which was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize in Biography and won the Oklahoma Book Award for best book in Nonfiction. She is the coauthor, with Andrew Burstein, of Madison and Jefferson. She is the T. Harry Williams Professor of American History at LSU, and writes regularly for Salon.com. Isenberg is the winner of the 2016 Walter & Lillian Lowenfels Criticism Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. She lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Charlottesville, Virginia.

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White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous 6 days ago
Disturbing yet enlighening work much akin to Howard Zinns "A History of the People ... " Begs the question why have so many resources have gone into raising the black lower class & so little effort to help poor southern whites. Clearly both have suffered equally under this land of the free.
navidad_thelamour 11 days ago
“If this book accomplishes anything it will be to have exposed a number of myths about the American dream, to have disabused readers of the notion that upward mobility is a function of the founders’ ingenious plan…” Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America is a kamikaze of research and hard-hitting assessments of our country’s attitude toward the “poor” and “shiftless” masses. It delves into the historical inaccuracies and missteps of a nation, our nation, and is a read to be savored and thoughtfully digested. Isenberg commences from the stance that she is addressing the fallacious and glossed-over condition of class relations in the U.S., because many Americans (truly, the world) genuinely believe in America as a classless society of un-threatened upward mobility potential. Firstly, if there is, in fact, someone—anyone—out there who honestly believes that class relations don’t exist front and center in America then 1) you need to run and grab this book (and 10 more just like it immediately, now, on your lunch break even!) and 2) might I ask, “What rock have you been hiding under?” Nancy Isenberg’s survey of American culture from Plymouth Rock to Sarah Palin offers something for everyone. Here she unravels history and popularized tales of John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, the “cracker” president, and even Pocahontas has her Disney-romanticized “diva” status stripped away and re-examined. Isenberg methodically tackles the rise and fall of the Confederacy, the eugenics craze that swept America for decades (still seen today in the form of modern-day dating websites such as eHarmony and Match.com), “The New Deal,” LBJ’s “Great Society” policies, desegregation and shifts in American culture that led to the rise of modern-day “white trash reality TV.” And while I did feel a bit leaden down with the dozens of pages of historical facts on these former presidents in Part I, when I was more interested in the meat of the argument, the task of setting the foundation for her argument was achieved and Part II onward flowed seamlessly. Historical documentation, photographs and illustrations also helped to set the scene and illustrate her assertions in way that was easily digestible. With White Trash, Isenberg demands us to ask ourselves, “What really is the American dream? Does it really exist? And if not, what truly stands in its stead?” These are the questions that you will explore, sometimes overtly and sometimes not. She offers some truly eye-opening observations and threads together the fabric of our American history into a full picture for readers to take a step back from and justly scrutinize. Within these pages, you’ll find humor and biting wit, punchlines that sink deeply into your psyche and assertions that are backed by meticulous research. Isenberg takes a clear and definitive stance in White Trash, writing specifically from a poor-white-centric lens, and honestly, that really appealed to me. Thankfully, she strips away the politically correct, granola pedagogy that we Americans like to think of as good manners and gets straight to the point of her argument: that the idea of American classlessness is a fanciful notion that never truly existed, and that poor whites have always been a significant force at the center of the debate. From the annihilation of... To see the full review and others, go to The Navi Review @ www.thenavireview.com
-traveler- 19 days ago
Three of the four people who reviewed this book didn't read it. Why is B&N posting theiron reviews. Perhaps a modicum of scrutiny would help give a more accurate review.
Anonymous 6 months ago
Anonymous 22 days ago
"Hey!" He grinned, sitting up. "How's it going?"