Nancy Isenberg: White Trash

In her groundbreaking history of the class system in America, extending from colonial times to the present, 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.”

The wretched and landless poor have existed from the time of the earliest British colonial settlement. 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.

I added and removed and added this book to my TBR so many times I lost track. I couldn’t decide whether it would be a racist mess or worthy history–so I couldn’t make up my mind if it was worth reading. I’m so glad it was the latter.

It was so surreal to read White Trash while the new health care bill is in the works. As I was reading it, I was watching the very same thing play out in front of me. I want to wrap this book in red and white Make America Great Again covers and stock it in every Red State bookstore across the country. Because this is their story! This is the ugly truth of the blue collar Americans vs. the Donald Trumps and Paul Ryans over and over back and back and back throughout our history.

But not only that, Isenberg also deconstructs every sugarcoated history lesson we’ve ever had. She walks us through Pocahontas’ life and just exactly how un-Disney that situation was. She explores how eugenics was Teddy Roosevelt’s other favorite subject (besides bear hunting), long before the Nazis came along. Oh and so much founding father stuff–especially Jefferson. Wowza Jefferson. You had some issues.

This is a hunk of material, not gonna lie about that. But if you’re a history buff, you’re going to find it interesting. I could not put this down–it never got dull. If a nonfiction book can be called a page turner, this is it. There’s so much here I never knew before, so much I want to research on my own. I definitely going to copy this bibliography to parse through later.

So many of her theories are fascinating–some I agreed with right away, some require more thought and reading. One I just don’t agree with at all…and if you can spoil a nonfiction book, I’m about to. This is just one very small section, so don’t let you deter you from the rest of it–which is why I’m including this here. There’s a lot to unpack, but it’s an important book for discussion, I think.

Anyway, the author makes the case that White Trash is an ethnicity of its own–with a unique subculture within America. While I can see the prejudice against poor people–there is a big difference between race and class. Even Isenberg makes the point several times that her White Trash subjects were racist against their black neighbors, and that there were often class differences between them. It just isn’t a point I could get behind. Her argument didn’t make any sense.

One other thing I didn’t quite follow was her line of defense for the poor people she is writing about. Most of the book, it seems like she is writing towards a solution, or at least a defense. However, the closer we get to modern times, the POV seems to flip, and she turns the magnifying glass more and more onto the poor–her writing seems to get harsher, rather than defending them, she glares at them with the same prejudice she is writing about. And her conclusion goes nowhere–there is no solution, it just wraps up with “this has been a history about the poor, we should probably do something.”

Even though the ending felt very meh to me, the history was extremely intriguing. There are a few biases from the author, certainly, but overall, I was very excited the whole time I was reading this book. I will be recommending this to anyone looking for an in depth history of the US. I’ll just make sure to let them know of the few flaws I found, of course.


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