White Trash: The 400-year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

This is the powerful history of what we have come to know as “white trash,” but formerly known as waste people by Richard Hakluyt in the 16th century and lubbers, rubbish, crackers, breeds, mudsills, clay-eaters (which they did), rednecks and trailer trash, among other things,  since then.    From pre-Amerian days  in London and Ireland through the colonization, Revolution,  the Civil War,  the Great Westward movement, the Great Wars and the Great Depression, as well as through  Lydon Johnson,   and on up to today.   It also follows the developments in eugenics from prior to the term and theory to after they were denounced  – the ideas have always been there apparently.   It’s been observed and often studied by folks like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson  who only observed and thought in terms of breeds and class.  The concept has been used by politicians and academics during the Civil War and of a later era when Social Darwinism and eugenics were the rage.  And it’s finally to more current sociologists and academics who try to understand the phenomenon of the trapped,  white, uneducated, chronically jobless segment of our society.


White Trash:  The 400-year Untold History of Class in America
by Nancy Isenberg
2016 / 480 pages
read by Kirsten Potter  15h 5m
rating –  9 / social history
(read and listened)

The scope is enormous and is accompanied by a matching depth, but because the language flows it never really feels dense (like Eric Foner’s Reconstruction which is  brilliant!).  Easy to read language is not necessarily a huge compliment  because the depth and complexity is there – it’s just easy to miss.  It’s easy to just slide over the words without really understanding what they mean in real depth and how they all work together.   This book is deceptively easy.  And it all gets a bit too much to comprehend in a single reading – White Trash needs slow, careful and thoughtful reading,  studying even,  and with some outside reading thrown in.

That’s the first half.   After the narrative gets to the 20th century,  about 1/2 way through the book,  it gets too long and full of too much information much of which is generally known.  This is especially true when it comes to the last half of the 20th century because  Alex Hailey’s difficulties and Tammy Faye Bakker really don’t need all that space.  Yes, they are/were white trash – the details don’t need to be examined.

It’s hard to tell what Isenberg is driving at – what’s her point?  –  Poor people are always treated like trash in a capitalist consumer oriented society.  They don’t have the money to buy good land or to get an education so what are they to do?

Yes,  the poor have always been treated pretty poorly,  especially by people who have managed to climb out of the worst of it. But that’s changed to an extent with the times – and it would seem white trash people are now self-proclaimed and use the attitude and experience to their advantage.   Carolyn Chute, the novelist, is an example of pride of origin – she’s hillbilly and poor white trash and that’s what she writes about in The Beans of Egypt, Maine.  Bill Clinton is another example and of course there’s Sarah Palin and the newer reality TV shows like Duck Dynasty and Little Honey Boo-Boo.

And there it is in the last lines of the last chapter.

“… the nation’s economic structure has a causal relationship with the social phenomena they highlight. They deny history. If they did not, they would recognize that the most powerful engines of the U.S. economy—slaveowning planters and land speculators in the past, banks, tax policy, corporate giants, and compassionless politicians and angry voters today—bear considerable responsibility for the lasting effects on white trash, or on falsely labeled ‘black rednecks,’ and on the working poor generally. The sad fact is, if we have no class analysis, then we will continue to be shocked at the numbers of waste people who inhabit what self-anointed patriots have styled the ‘greatest civilization in the history of the world.'”

The main thrust continues into the Epilogue where it’s stated far more plainly than in the preceding chapters.   Very powerful.

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