Review: Nancy Isenberg, WHITE TRASH

I’ve already mentioned White Trash twice before, but I’ve been meaning to put up a brief review as well.

The book begins with the original colonizing goal of the British: to use the new American continent as a “wasteland” for unwanted people. From the very beginning, then, the idea of a degraded class inhabiting the geography was central to the American image. That image, however, transformed over the years as people sought new ways to redeem, reform, and re-train these people to perhaps be contributing members of society. Yet even the most literal thinkers who searched for ways to transform these idle and landless people often fell back on common tropes that took for granted the poor would always be with them and forever be a thorn in their side. It wasn’t until the presidential election of 1840 that the “squatter” gained a more romantic lore and a key pandering piece to democratic politics, and it wasn’t until the sectional crisis that “white trash” became both a common phrase and a potent political concept during the debates over slavery. Northerners argued that the poor white population in the south was indicative of slavery’s corrosive effects; conversely, southerners provided scientific arguments for a pure genetic American “breed.”

One thing that really stood out to me was that the confederate ideology, brilliantly covered in chapters 6 & 7, was based as much on class as it was race. Southern intellectuals and leaders conceptualized visions of society that halted any form of social mobility, thereby cementing the presence of the poor. That gives context to later formulations of neo-confederacy beliefs, and adds irony to appeals to this past age.

After the Civil War and reconstruction era, where southerners despised both “mongrels” (who mixed races) and “scalawags” (who were traitors to both race and class), eugenics mania swept the nation. It was sobering read about all the “purebred” efforts, like sterilization laws, as people pushed for perfect heredity. Moving into the twentieth century, the source base for Isenberg expands as she is able to draw from the rich paradoxes of popular media: television shows, movies, pastor’s wives, singers—all of these identities worked to both add new wrinkles to the white trash narrative while still cementing their class status in stone. The Duck Dynasty men, for instance, she’s their business attire to “look” the part of hillbillies. What I found fascinating was how the white trash image worked in seeming direct opposition to the American belief in social mobility: they have always been at the lower end of the American hierarchy, and there they will always remain, seemingly by choice. The very presence and perpetuation of white trash symbolism is the reaffirmation of class in America.

Yet for a book whose topic acknowledges and engages the great spectrum of class in America, it certainly spends most of its time looking in one direction. That is, a lot of the analysis is focused on how elites understood the downtrodden population. The first quarter of the book focuses on people like John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson—not exactly the most representative bunch. When Isenberg turns her attention to the actual people categorized as “white trash,” it is often an abstract and ominous “them” who are always just a step beyond the particulars. “White Trash” the concept gets a lot of fascinating detail, impressive specificity, and documented transformation, but the “white trash” as an actual class remain a group in the shadows awaiting molding by those who seek to take advantage of them.

This is probably due to sources, however, because as the chronology advances the subject base expands. Starting with the chapter on Andrew Jackson’s Cracker Country, the demeaned populace come into clearer view, and they indeed take a more prominent role in the twentieth century when they had the tools to celebrate and promote their heritage.

One final note of praise: the challenge of writing this kind of broad-sweeping book, as far as I understand it, is to cover such a large literature in such short a space. There is a lot of historiography on the 400 years in question. But Isenberg is a master historian, not only in demonstrating a depth in knowledge but also a skill in digesting so much material in a readable way. Her endnotes are a testament to the amount of work that goes into every paragraph:


It is easy to skim across the surface of four centuries, but difficult to actually immerse yourself in their intricacies. White Trash is an embodiment of the latter.

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