White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg
Atlantic Books, November 2nd, 2017 (first published in 2016)
I read a review of this book in Quadrant Magazine last year and was immediately interested in the subject matter. I have long had a distant fondness for the American underclass of the South and reading a book strictly chronicling their history appealed to me. Of course, the United States is not the only country with an underclass; as they exist in one form or another in every nation. However, the form taken particularly in the American South is certainly unique in character and due to the force of American popular culture; has been something much of the world has learned about. The reality is often more depressing than the scripted and televised sitcoms and reality shows broadcast. In this book the historic reality of them is traced all the back to England before the early colonies.
The edition of this book I read begins with a new preface by the author Nancy Isenberg, commenting on the then newly elected Donald Trump and connecting the work to current American politics. This very much foreshadowed the end of the book when events leave history and enter living memory. It is not that the subject matter isn’t related but that the writing became more polemical and opinionated from this point.
White Trash is at it’s strongest in the first two Parts (of three), covering the period from early settlement up until the mid-twentieth century. Much of her interpretation of political events through this is conventionally liberal (in the American sense), with the most well-known events in American history. These being colonial settlement, slavery, conflict with Indians, the War for Independence, the frontier, the Civil War right through to the Great Depression, the New Deal, World War II and the Civil Rights Era. In all these areas, there is nothing out of step with what you would find in your average public school text book. This would all provoke a yawn from me if it wasn’t for the people she focuses in on throughout.
I was immediately reminded early on of American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan in the early stages of the book. This is a book I have not read for over a decade but which still sits on my shelf. The basic thesis of the book is the American paradox of freedom of slavery. The American colonies were initially fueled by indentured servitude and later African slavery, yet is a country that has enshrined freedom and individual liberty in its founding documents and laws. This was not lost on people of the time and Samuel Johnson once quipped:
How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?
The early settlers, many of whom were sent from England, were considered refuse or “waste people” in their homeland and often criminals too were deported to the American continent before Australia became more famous for it. The etymology of “white trash” and the many other words used to describe the lower-class whites required a lot of focus and there are a great many words throughout used to describe these people. Generally they are placed in the traditional American South but this underclass is never totally defined by geography throughout the work. In the final part, even the people of Alaska are connected through the very public private life of Sarah Palin.
The most important part of the work is that despite the widely-held belief among Americans, class is and has always been something that existed in America. And that despite their being many examples of people moving up and down; it really did matter and affected social mobility for the average American. Poorer settlers were limited in the land they could acquire and certain families became immensely powerful very early on. Many modern prominent American families can trace their lineage to these same prestigious families. America was never a classless society.
Despite the obvious political left leanings of the author, the dissident, alternative or unauthorised political right would do well to adopt this part of the books thesis. Principally because this is a key (and totally false), aspect of particularly modern conservative propaganda. This is the idea that America is and was founded as an idea that anyone could be a part of. That the founders ever intended to create what is now termed a “meritocracy” is nonsense. And Isenberg often quotes straight from the founders mouths in demonstrating this. The average conservative has an idea of the USA that is one line from the Declaration of Independence mixed with one line from Martin Luther King Jr. speech. Something like,
We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and are to be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character while they pursue life, liberty and happiness.
I’m pretty sure I could present this as the actual text of the Declaration of Independence and many Americans would believe it.
Apart from the standard and questionable interpretations of major events in the history of the US, I do have some other quibbles with the work. One that suggests some of her research might not have been very thorough is her uncritical acceptance of the apparent relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings. There is a very good video on questioning this by Jared Taylor of American Renaissance which at the very least makes this very unlikely.
Another is towards the end of her book she focuses far more on popular culture with very limited coverage of actual “white trash” people of twentieth century. I don’t think The Beverly Hillbillies, Deliverance or The Dukes of Hazard are irrelevant to her thesis, but popular culture is much less of a feature of the bulk of the earlier part of her work. I suspect that part of the reason is because there was a genuine rise in living standards during this time. I also suspect a statistically negligible portion of the American population now live without running water, electricity and other luxuries their descendants in mud huts in the 18th century couldn’t have imagined.
This leads into another point that I think is rarely ever grasped. The closest a society has come to being mostly middle-class is Japan and yet, there still have to be people to farm, fix sewer pipes and take out the trash. I would challenge someone to demonstrate that there are any societies that don’t have an underclass of some description. The challenge seems to me to be to make it as small and comfortable as possible; not at wild attempts to make it disappear. It certainly won’t through the methods the author seems to favour. It isn’t surprising of course that she doesn’t spend much time considering how much intellectual capacity and culture play into these people’s circumstances.
I also can’t resist having a go at this which appears in the last chapter of her book:
“Abortion and birth control, meanwhile, are for evangelical conservatives a violation of God’s will that all people should be fruitful and multiply, and yet this same fear of unnatural methods of reproduction does not engender opposition to fertility clinics. Antiabortion activists, like eugenicists, think that the state has the right to intervene in the breeding habits of poor single women.”
This was said in relation to restrictions placed on state funding of abortions. Funding them would be intervening in their breeding habits. Notice she also defines opposition as “fear” and misses the very important distinction between artificial methods of assisting new life and artificial methods of preventing or exterminating new life. I’d say those two are quite distinct. This gives you a good idea of her worldview as does her rather catty discussion of Sarah Palin and her family in the last part of the book.
It was good to see eugenics come into it as well, but the types of people promoting and legislating for it weren’t often mentioned. They were of course progressives so I’m not surprised she avoided making this explicit.
Despite these shortcomings, it is a book worth reading for those interested in the subject matter. There is a lot more I could quibble with but overall it is a useful study of the history of class in America. Particularly for the white underclass which is still very much a part of the nation.