In White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg traces the historical emergence and instantiation of ‘poor white trash’ as a chastised category within the US social fabric, as a further challenge to any continued assumptions about the supposedly classless nature of US society. While questioning whether the book fully steers clear of the elitism it otherwise aims to uncover and question, Daniel Falkiner finds much food for thought in its pages.
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Nancy Isenberg. Penguin Random House. 2017.
As Nancy Isenberg describes in her new book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, one question that polite American society has always asked itself is whether poor whites can really be considered white (or even truly human). Usually, the answer has been that the people whom the upper classes have alternately called offscourings, bogtrotters, clay-eaters, swamp people, mudsills, hillbillies and rednecks are indeed a breed apart, deserving of sympathy or scorn but rarely solidarity.
White Trash documents in exhaustive detail how every stage in the continent’s development – from the arrival of the Pilgrims to the inauguration of President Donald Trump – has seen its elites construct their own taxonomies of deplorable (and expendable) white people. Isenberg’s purpose in doing so is to undermine the belief among Americans that their society miraculously shed the burdens of class and pedigree that prevailed in the mother country of England. ‘Far more than we choose to acknowledge’, she writes, ‘our relentless class system evolved out of recurring agrarian notions regarding the character and potential of the land, the value of labor, and critical concepts of breeding’.
This story begins with the evacuation of Britain’s human ‘waste’ from the country’s slums as part of the English nobility’s efforts to ‘fertilise’ the New World. In Isenberg’s words, ‘the idle poor, the dregs of society, were to be sent thither to throw down manure and die in a vacuous muck.’ Agricultural metaphors and the logic of animal husbandry persisted into the revolutionary period: Benjamin Franklin’s thoughts on populating the country were shaped by his experiences raising pigeons, while Thomas Jefferson’s vision of future US leadership rested on his faith in a ‘fortuitous concourse of breeders’ that would give birth to a natural aristocracy. Isenberg makes a strong case that the new republic was not – and was never envisioned by its founders to be – an egalitarian and classless society, but rather one based on rank and privilege.
Class prejudices evolved as squatters and backwoodsmen pushed out the frontier, but even heralded democrats such as Andrew Jackson could bring no healing (if anything, Isenberg says, Jackson’s leadership entrenched class divisions). With the advent of the Civil War, the language of class identity took a new turn: destitute southern whites in particular became a ‘notorious race’, which according to some critics had ‘fallen below African slaves on the scale of humanity’. As one writer for the Atlantic Monthly asked in 1865, why should the victorious Union keep ‘the humble, quiet, hard-working negro’ disenfranchised and leave the North vulnerable to the vote of the ‘worthless’ and ‘vicious’ poor whites, who were ‘fit for no decent employment on earth except manual labor’? It was from this point onwards that the label of ‘poor white trash’ began to stick, and the image of the inbred, ignorant and immoral southern redneck emerged as the ridiculous and frightening figure that is still so firmly entrenched in modern culture (the 1960s sitcom The Beverley Hillbillies and the 1972 film Deliverance are just two of the examples that Isenberg examines in this regard).
To Isenberg’s credit, her prose is elegant – if occasionally a little verbose – and her depth of knowledge is impressive. Her book largely succeeds in demolishing the notion that America is, or ever was, a society in which all whites (or, indeed, people of any race) could equally benefit from the system and pursue happiness. Nevertheless, although Isenberg certainly displays a welcome wariness for the limits of conventional wisdom on US history, she is noticeably reticent to question some of her own ideological assumptions and this has a detrimental impact on her work.
For example, Isenberg takes it for granted that historical beliefs about marriage and reproduction were merely attempts to maintain a system of oppression and rationalise indifference to the plight of the poor. While no doubt such beliefs sometimes functioned in this way, Isenberg’s flagrant dismissal of Charles Darwin and others’ thoughts on evolution and inheritance as ‘pseudoscience’ that simply provided ‘a convenient way to naturalize [social] differences’ is unwarranted. Isenberg’s tabula rasa approach to human ability and her belief that life outcomes are determined by social structure alone are themselves political rationalisations, and they distort her analysis.
This is reflected most clearly in her book’s conclusion, where she accuses ‘deceivers’ – by which she means Republicans – of using the sort of false historical narratives that her book seeks to undermine to convince the white working class to vote against its self-interest. The white poor, she says, are regularly told pernicious lies about how ‘East Coast college professors brainwash the young and Hollywood liberals make fun of them and have nothing in common with them and hate America’. Elaborating on this theme in less constrained language elsewhere, Isenberg – with Andrew Burstein – argues that the Grand Old Party welcomes to its fold all those ‘predominantly white Malcontents’ who are ‘incapable of dissociating economic anxiety from their inherited racist assumptions, those whose anti-intellectualism is ready to be exploited (or who believe Sarah Palin can actually interpret everyday reality for them)’.
Some may find this ‘bitter truth’ more palatable than populist flattery. But such language is strikingly similar to the rhetoric used by elites to marginalise poor whites in the past (note in particular Isenberg’s reference to inheritance). Indeed, amid running media half-jokes that poor white communities should be left to die or otherwise fade into oblivion, it is not a stretch to suggest that this kind of discourse is setting the scene for the Malcontents to become the deplorables of the twenty-first century. That the author of White Trash should fail to even consider this possibility is quite remarkable. This significant oversight notwithstanding, her book provides much food for thought.
This article originally appeared in the LSE Review of Books.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Daniel Falkiner is a London-based political analyst with Sibylline Ltd. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics, and has taught on security, conflict and geopolitics at the LSE and Queen Mary University. Read more by Daniel Falkiner.