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

by Nancy Isenberg

Hardcover, 2016

Status

Available

Publication

New York, New York : Viking, [2016]

Description

"A history of the class system in America from the colonial era to the present illuminates the crucial legacy of the underprivileged white demographic, citing the pivotal contributions of lower-class white workers in wartime, social policy, and the rise of the Republican Party,"--NoveList.

User reviews

LibraryThing member deusvitae
Another book of which the subtitle is more accurate than the title. This book is not really about "white trash"; it's about "the 400 year untold history of class in America."

If one is looking for or waiting for a book really getting into the story of "white trash," and the experience of poor white people in America, one will be disappointed in this book; J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy" will be more profitable to this end. Rarely are representatives of the "white trash" communities heard in this book; it's mostly about how other people viewed such people.

But for its stated purpose the book is certainly effective. I, for one, did not need to be convinced about the role of class and particularly class consciousness in American history, but recognize that "the Dream," the "idea" of America, is that it is somehow a classless society, as if those who advance always and primarily do so because of skill and merit, and those who do not advance are just lazy or undisciplined.

The author does not seek to offer a Marxist/Communist critique; if any discussion of class in America is automatically assumed to lead to Marxism such shows the awful state of the discussion about class in America. What the author does well is to show that there are at least two classes in America: where "you" are, and the people "beneath" you in social capital and standing.

Depending where a person is on the economic spectrum, they may have confidence in the virtue of some of the people who are less economically advantaged than themselves: how some among the wealthy may view, say, the middle class, or how members of the middle class view the "working poor." Yet, as the author demonstrates well, all such people come together and maintain a consistent narrative about how they view those on the very bottom rung: "rubbish" in the 17th century, "white trash" today.

The narrative is sadly consistent throughout American history: from its founding as colonies, America was to be a place where at least some of Britain's "trash population" would be dumped. This population has been marginalized for as long as it has existed, considered swamp people, squatters, mudsills, scalawags, white trash, trailer trash, etc. From the beginning they have been pushed to the margins, chastised for their breeding, uncouth living standards, and deviant culture. When they fail they are blamed entirely, generally in terms of bad breeding or bad environment. It has always been fashionable to find ways to "get rid" of such people, from cannon fodder to candidates for forced sterilization. The author traces this from the idea of the American colonies in the sixteenth century through the development of those colonies, the writings of Franklin and Jefferson, the frontier experience, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the early 20th century, the middle 20th century, and the white trash phenomenon since. She explores the few times when notable men have come out of the "white trash" community (Jackson, Lincoln, Johnson, Carter, Clinton), and how they were treated in "civilized" culture on account of it.

The book is light on application; one feels that chapters end abruptly, and it is only in the epilogue that the author's full purposes are accentuated. The point is to open the reader's eyes to the long-standing and thoroughly culturally acceptable condescension and disgust toward "white trash," how it has rendered invisible a large swath of the American population invisible, and has denied them full "American-ness." The goal, ostensibly, is to get the rest of us to be a bit more sympathetic toward their plight, but to what end?

This book provides a good complementary read to J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy," and vice versa. Both books show well the failures of government and American culture in general to help the marginalized poor white community; Vance speaks well to the internal challenges of that community, while Isenberg does well at showing the systemic, long-term attitude issues of culture in general toward them. Hopefully considering such things may lead to discussions of how these communities can be worked with in a healthier and more productive way.Another book of which the subtitle is more accurate than the title. This book is not really about "white trash"; it's about "the 400 year untold history of class in America."

If one is looking for or waiting for a book really getting into the story of "white trash," and the experience of poor white people in America, one will be disappointed in this book; J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy" will be more profitable to this end. Rarely are representatives of the "white trash" communities heard in this book; it's mostly about how other people viewed such people.

But for its stated purpose the book is certainly effective. I, for one, did not need to be convinced about the role of class and particularly class consciousness in American history, but recognize that "the Dream," the "idea" of America, is that it is somehow a classless society, as if those who advance always and primarily do so because of skill and merit, and those who do not advance are just lazy or undisciplined.

The author does not seek to offer a Marxist/Communist critique; if any discussion of class in America is automatically assumed to lead to Marxism such shows the awful state of the discussion about class in America. What the author does well is to show that there are at least two classes in America: where "you" are, and the people "beneath" you in social capital and standing.

Depending where a person is on the economic spectrum, they may have confidence in the virtue of some of the people who are less economically advantaged than themselves: how some among the wealthy may view, say, the middle class, or how members of the middle class view the "working poor." Yet, as the author demonstrates well, all such people come together and maintain a consistent narrative about how they view those on the very bottom rung: "rubbish" in the 17th century, "white trash" today.

The narrative is sadly consistent throughout American history: from its founding as colonies, America was to be a place where at least some of Britain's "trash population" would be dumped. This population has been marginalized for as long as it has existed, considered swamp people, squatters, mudsills, scalawags, white trash, trailer trash, etc. From the beginning they have been pushed to the margins, chastised for their breeding, uncouth living standards, and deviant culture. When they fail they are blamed entirely, generally in terms of bad breeding or bad environment. It has always been fashionable to find ways to "get rid" of such people, from cannon fodder to candidates for forced sterilization. The author traces this from the idea of the American colonies in the sixteenth century through the development of those colonies, the writings of Franklin and Jefferson, the frontier experience, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the early 20th century, the middle 20th century, and the white trash phenomenon since. She explores the few times when notable men have come out of the "white trash" community (Jackson, Lincoln, Johnson, Carter, Clinton), and how they were treated in "civilized" culture on account of it.

The book is light on application; one feels that chapters end abruptly, and it is only in the epilogue that the author's full purposes are accentuated. The point is to open the reader's eyes to the long-standing and thoroughly culturally acceptable condescension and disgust toward "white trash," how it has rendered invisible a large swath of the American population invisible, and has denied them full "American-ness." The goal, ostensibly, is to get the rest of us to be a bit more sympathetic toward their plight, but to what end?

This book provides a good complementary read to J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy," and vice versa. Both books show well the failures of government and American culture in general to help the marginalized poor white community; Vance speaks well to the internal challenges of that community, while Isenberg does well at showing the systemic, long-term attitude issues of culture in general toward them. Hopefully considering such things may lead to discussions of how these communities can be worked with in a healthier and more productive way.
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LibraryThing member ritaer
Far from being a land of opportunity for all Isenberg portrays America first as a dumping ground for the superfluous population of England: the vagrant poor who had been driven from their subsistence farming into the roads and cities and lives of crime. Shipped to America as indentured servants or convicts these people settled on the poorest land and mostly failed as farmers. Wherever they ended up they were labeled as refuse, human rubbish, trash, clay eaters, hill billies and rednecks. Blamed for there poverty and even for the diseases, such as hookworm, that exacerbated it they remained at the bottom of the social latter. However the rise of identity politics led to some degree of self identification as redneck and an attempt to reconceptualize the class as working class real Americans. Interesting and instructive.… (more)
LibraryThing member Kellswitch
This is a challenging book to review, I learned so much reading it and it roused so many feelings in me and I found what it says about humans in general and America in particular depressing as hell. I did not finish this book feeling positive about our species and our future, and I suspect that had I finished reading it before the election in 2016 I suspect I wouldn't have been as caught off guard by the end result.

This book challenged me, educated me and made me think way outside my comfort zone. It wasn't a fun read but it was fascinating and important and is a must read.
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LibraryThing member AnneMichaud
"White Trash" offers a fascinating new lens on American class history. The author presents a sort of Howard Zinn ("A People's History of the United States") reinterpretation, upending the tropes we learned in history class. I very much appreciated her analysis. The material on the eugenics movement in America was stunning to me. Nancy Isenberg drew a connecting line from colonial days, with the lower-class cast-off indentured servants sent from England, through to Elvis Presley and Bill Clinton. I still believe there is more work to do in understanding these various threads of the "American spirit," as Isenberg calls it. The reading is slow at points. All in all, though, a good addition to our understanding of the origins of class in America.… (more)
LibraryThing member neddludd
I would hope that this book is destined to become one of those must reads for anyone interested in U.S. history and culture. The work debunks cherished myths and reveals how a rigid class structure has been a part of the American scene since the first pre-colonial settlements. It was imported from England, where the New World was viewed as a place to expel Britain's underclass (who were viewed almost as an immoral different species than "normal" individuals who owned property and "contributed" to society). In America, the lowest of the low performed several functions: for example, it was squatters who first expanded the frontier and created a buffer between domesticated lands in the east and the savage interior. Manifest Destiny provided a justification for this class to continue further and further west, which then set the stage for never-ending land speculation (and a consistent favoring of the wealthy and connected who picked up huge acreage and unceremoniously banished the poor.) Throughout history, the poor have been loathed and in the early 20th-century there was widespread use of eugenics which sought to reduce the poor by sterilizing white-trash women. For the lowest of the low there has never been upward mobility. And the sense of this being an inclusive democracy is a baldfaced lie in the sense of countless exclusionary strategies that denied the vote for the poor, for blacks, for immigrants, for women. A book that rivals Howard Zinn's debunking American history survey in its courageous telling of truth to power.… (more)
LibraryThing member rivkat
Isenberg argues for the relevance of class in the US’s supposedly classless society, and certainly shows that white people aren’t generally satisfied with excluding nonwhites but also wish to make distinctions between good and bad types of white people. However, the work suffers from a failure to fully define what she means by “class.” Sometimes it appears to be economic; but then sometimes it’s about culture, since even the rough backwoods types who make tons of money stay culturally devalued. I did leave the book thinking that Andrew Jackson, the first “white trash” president, has a lot of similarities with Donald Trump—uninterested in learning; quick to anger; petty; and willing to kill a lot of people who didn’t look like him.… (more)
LibraryThing member Citizenjoyce
This book chronicles the treatment the poor in the US since its inception. It seems our "classless" society is no better than most others in its desire to exploit, dehumanize and continually encapsulate those at the bottom of the financial spectrum.
LibraryThing member annbury
A good book; it took quite a while to read it, and the early chapters are somewhat boring. If the author had led with her epilogue, that might have been better. The book becomes a fast read when the subject matter turns to the modern times and authors and movies and everything else. The problem is that Slavery was responsible for all of the country's growth before the civil war, and a good bit of its problems today. How is one expected to react to Trump except that he says what Republicans only dog whistle: he got the primary voters to approve him (he won everywhere) by appealing to their worst instincts, which are still alive in this nation. He is anti-black, and anti-woman, and anti-immigrant and the people who vote for him are the same. The reason that the author spends more time than may seem warranted on the South and its history is its unique relationship to Slavery, and its contribution to the myth about this country. It will never go away. I am appalled and regard this as a must read book. I think that she would have made a strong case anyway about our class differences if she stayed on the 21st and 20th century.… (more)
LibraryThing member mldavis2
Author Isenberg has done an exhaustive study of the origins of lower-class, poverty and the effects on American history. The notes at the back of the book are nearly one-fourth of the book itself. This is a bit slow going in the early pages of history but it finishes nicely.
LibraryThing member msf59
Waste people, clay-eaters, squatters, crackers, trailer-trash, rednecks and hillbillies. Different names, different times, same conclusion: The poor. The white trash.

The author looks at the American class system, over the past few centuries. A system the pilgrims fled from but immediately adopted again, as they formed a home in the New World. The book painstakingly traces the origins of the downtrodden, touching on Ben Franklin, Jeff Davis, Darwin, eugenics, T.R., the Joads, Elvis, TKAM, Hee Haw, LBJ, Deliverance, Dukes of Hazzard, Billy Beer, Swamp Rabbit, Tammy Faye and finally hitting on our current lows of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty. Whew!
I admired the ambition of the book but the first half bogs down in a drier narrative but does pick up, in the second half of the 20th century, as it explores the influences of politics and pop culture, into the class discussion. A good but not great read.
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LibraryThing member gayla.bassham
There is a lot of interesting material here, but not as much analysis as I'd hoped, and what is there is fairly shallow. That's a consequence of trying to cover 400 years in 320 pages, I think -- it would have been a stronger book if she'd focused on the twentieth century. The strongest sections of the book cover the New Deal; she also has interesting things to say about Elvis, Lyndon Johnson, and Jimmy Carter. (Alas, the pages she devotes to the saga of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker don't offer much that is new.)

I do harbor a secret hope that she will update the book with a chapter that covers this demographic's embrace of "billionaire" Donald Trump.
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LibraryThing member MrDickie
Have you ever wondered about whether the history you learned in school is really about what happened? Do you believe that this country wasn't built on a Class System? Reading this, very well documented book, will answer those questions. You'll learn about the long history of lying by our leaders going all the way back to the Founding Fathers. This was another book I learned about when the author was interviewed on CPAN Books. It was worth waiting for my name to bubble to the top of the county library waiting list.… (more)
LibraryThing member MichaelC.Oliveira
Wonderful history of the term and people defined as "white trash," while did not always agree with the author, the work as a whole was well-researched and presented in a cogent manner. A great break from my YA book binge.
LibraryThing member dickmanikowski
Fascinating depiction of the role that class has played in American history, from the earliest Colonial times. Unfortunately, I didn't apply myself well enough to finish this library book during its three week loan period. I should have suspected that another patron's hold would prevent me from renewing it, since I'd been on a long hold list before having my turn with it.… (more)
LibraryThing member Illiniguy71
This claims to be the story of America's white underclass from the time in the sixteenth century when Richard Hakluyt first imagined sending England's poor to colonize America to the present. For people who have lived a sheltered upper-class existence or have been cosseted all their lives in an exclusive suburb, the fact that America has a lot of poor whites and that for them "equality of opportunity" is a cruel myth may be revealing. For many of us, however, the author only states the obvious.
This is more a cultural than an economic history although Isenberg, herself, realizes income is the most central issue in analyzing this class.
To my mind, Isenberg gives too much attention to such early figures as Franklin, Jefferson, and Jackson, and not enough to the present. She also concentrates too much of her attention to the South. Major portions of the rural Midwest today have been turned into a wasteland by the meth epidemic which, in turn, is largely a function of no meaningful employment opportunities. Why concentrate on writers about the South of the 1930s and 1940s when there are such writers as Bobbie Ann Mason today?
This book has received a lot of media attention because it is on such an important and hidden or ignored topic. But what it delivers fails to live up to the hype.
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LibraryThing member marshapetry
loved it. excellent book, excellent narrator. A fun and absorbing read. I never knew that white trash went back so far in history, just under different names.

If you like cultural history and learning about how our ancestors lived and how they treated others - or perhaps were treated by others - you will love this book. Highly recommend.… (more)
LibraryThing member mojomomma
A fascinating look at how divided our so-called democratic society is and how it got that way. The role of the under-educated white citizens, particularly in the southern states, and how their ancestors operated in a slave-owning society was particularly interesting. Lots of current events with the election segue right into this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member SydneySpaniel
This book had some good points and could be a first rate study on class in America, but it totally misses the interplay between the populists movements of the late 19th and early 20th century and their impact on American politics and view of class issues. If you want to find out about class tension throughout America, this is not the book for you. The book is not about class in America, only Southern White Trash. And the author goes out of her way to demonstrate that all conservatives are in reality a manifestation of Southern White Trash. I had a hard time getting past the numerous anachronistic issues (for instance, blaming an 19th century writers theory on misguided trickle down economics pg 162) and obvious political bias (page 277 - the only way people can get out of poverty is through government intervention, page 316 - people such as Trump, George W. Bush, and Paris Hilton are only known because of Nepotism..."Even some men of recognized competence in national politics are products of nepotism: Albert Gore Jr., Rand Paul, Andrew Cuomo, and numerous Kennedys" implying eveyone else is not competent). I wanted to follow some of her reasoning by reading footnotes and found out that the footnote had nothing to do with the point she was making page 140 footnote 12) I think i would have received a failing grade if I handed this in for one of my history papers.… (more)
LibraryThing member Pretear
The basic thesis here is this: There is no such thing as a classless society in America and pretending that one exists is harmful to everyone. The provocative subject matter, "white trash," is certainly interesting and the author is thorough, but it got a bit boring in the middle.
LibraryThing member Narshkite
A 3.5 for me. Fascinating history well researched. I learned a great deal, admired the compelling connections made by the author, and knew I would not nave made the connections myself. But ....its a bit of an organizational mess. some matters are covered in painful detail and others glossed over without being connected to the central thesis. This muddies the message. Some of these unmade points are clarified in the epilogue, but it is too little too late. Overall a very worthwhile and engaging read though imperfect.… (more)
LibraryThing member kaelirenee
Given the current backlash to advances in racial equality, I wanted to get a fuller vision of the history of class issues in this country. Most books talk mostly about racial issues when discussing class, because we are so uncomfortable talking about class in the States. But by removing race from the conversation (in a manner), Isenberg does a wonderful job explaining how race resentment has been stoked among the poor whites of this country in order to keep them from protesting the actual reasons for income inequality and imbalance--class distinctions. The waves of populism, nationalism, and isolationism that this country has seen can be tied directly to this misdirection by the wealthy and power-holders of the rage held by the less well-off. Strongly recommended for those interested in understanding American history and present.… (more)
LibraryThing member akblanchard
Nancy Isenberg's White Trash is an ambitious survey of over 400 years of elite opinion on America's permanent white, mostly Southern underclass, the people pejoratively referred to as "white trash". The text draws upon a wide range of sources, from the writings of the Founding Fathers to modern reality TV shows. The poor, it turns out, have been with us since the early colonial period, and the people on bottom rung of the white socioeconomic ladder has always been dehumanized as expendable "rubbish". Isenberg's other point is that in the United States, a class system is alive and well, as much as Americans generally pretend that this is not the case.

Isenberg's history is filled with politicians, novelists, eugenicists, and others delivering their thoughts about the white underclass. She cites well known figures with "hillbilly" roots such as Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton. But only once does she let a genuine poor white man speak for himself, and that is just briefly in the epilogue. More attention to the real people behind the labels might have made this book a more compelling read.
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LibraryThing member BEGivens
I'm just frustrated with this book. I thought it was good, and then I thought it was bad, and then I thought for sure it was going to end on a high note and the author lost me. I think what bothered me the most, was that while trying to be objective I think the author also defends people that I disagree with. I also didn't feel like this book was about financial or social class necessarily, as much as it was about the opinions that are harbored for or against someone with a certain geographical background. The reason for my two star review was that I do not feel like I would ever recommend this book. While this book is undoubtedly ground breaking, and I don't discount that it should be hailed, it was not my cup of tea.… (more)
LibraryThing member nmele
This is an important book because it examines the history of class conflict in America. Unfortunately, Isenberg focuses on invective and politicians in a narrative that jumps from one political era to another without really giving a sense of the continuity in this country's refusal to consider class differences as worthy of discussion and possible remedy. She only nods at white-black relations, and simly does not address the nativism that is once again rising around the country.… (more)
LibraryThing member TerriS
This nonfiction book on the history of Class in America was Very interesting! It was a little like reading ("listening to" in my case) a history book. But I'll say I sure learned a lot! And it was a lot different than what I learned in school! It was a little long, but worth it in the end. If you are interested in history, I would highly recommend this book.… (more)

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