By Melynda Nuss
LOS ANGELES, 1 DECEMBER 2016 Can a single history book dispel
the myth that America is free from class division and that upward mobility
is a natural part of the founders ingenious plan?
This is the
tall order that Nancy Isenberg sets for herself in White Trash: The
400-Year Untold History of Class in America. The book is an ambitious
survey of the rhetoric of social class in America, beginning with the
first English promotion of New World settlements in the late 1500s and
ending with the reality television shows Duck Dynasty and
Here Comes Honey Boo Boo in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
Isenberg handily shows that for the British, the new American colonies
were as much about getting rid of their "waste" people as they were about
creating a new, free and productive society. The new continent was "waste"
or, in the parlance of sixteenth-century England, undeveloped and
unproductive. What better way to expose England's own unproductive people
its wastrels and beggars, gamblers and thieves to the ennobling
virtues of hard work? The first American settlers brought European class
structures with them. The tobacco plantations of Virginia used debtors and
abandoned children as slaves. The Puritans had sumptuary laws which
required people to dress in a way that showed their class status. And even
though Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, Benjamin Franklin and
Thomas Jefferson believed that abundant land and hard work could change
the waste people of Europe into a new American breed, the working class
people they came across in their farms and towns were often lazy, idle and
unkempt the very definition of white trash.
This is a cultural history, so readers expecting pages of income data
and migration statistics will be disappointed. Instead, Isenberg's
strength is an almost literary attention to the names people give to the
white poor and the metaphors they use to describe them. They were called
"rubbish," "lubbers," "sandhillers," "clay-eaters," "scum of the land,"
"white slaves," and "bogtrotting Irish." The American colonies were
"emunctories," excreting human waste from the body politic, and the poor
were the "offscourings" human fecal waste. The poor were condemned as
idle, thriftless, debauched, diseased, and perverse. They troubled the
boundaries between whites and other races, and between human settlers and
animals. Even when they were praised, as they were in the days of frontier
settlement, they were drunken savages unfit for polite company. Isenberg
is particularly good on the etymology of "cracker" the term comes from
the idea that lower-class settlers were noisy, vulgar braggarts, and their
"cracking" came both from "cracking" jokes and "cracking" wind, which made
them sound and smell like firecrackers. Near the end of the book, there is
a fascinating take on identifying the poor as "trailer trash,"
simultaneously emphasizing their poverty, their freedom and their
But the books breadth is ultimately its undoing. Although there are
some consistent themes the association of the white poor with animals
and other races, their laziness, their physical and moral degeneracy, and
their general bad breeding any book that tries to cover everything
from Sarah Palin to the swamp-dwellers of seventeenth-century Carolina is
bound to get lost in the weeds. The story Isenberg wants to tell requires
context, and a reader not already familiar with the details of the
American experience might find herself swimming in the details of the
westward settlement, Depression-era land policy, eugenics, and the
philosophy of John Locke.
As a result, the book can feel both over-inclusive and under-inclusive.
Did we really need the philosophies of Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson
and John Locke to convince us that the original settlers thought
they could turn trash people into treasure? In post-WW II America, do we
really need to hear about LBJ, Elvis, and Bill Clinton? Mayberry
RFD, Gomer Pyle, and The Beverly Hillbillies? There
is no pronouncement on "white trash" culture too small to be included and
discussed. Isenberg is a careful enough historian to try to set out the
complexities of all of the examples she introduces. But she introduces so
many examples that her complexities seem contradictory and underbaked.
Were Americans making fun of white trash when TVs Beverly
Hillbillies couldnt figure out how to work their home appliances and
didnt know what to do with their swimming pool? Or were the Hillbillies a
wholesome American family who, week after week, outsmarted their snobby
banker Milburn Drysdale with their homespun common sense? Since Isenberg
only spends a few paragraphs on the subject before moving on to a
similarly cursory examination of Elvis Presley, Richard and Pat Nixon, and
Levittown, all she can do is note the contradictions and move on.
The most obvious thing Isenberg glosses over, of course, is race. Her
history touches on civil rights and the Civil War, where the relationship
between race and class is complicated and undeniably important. But to
Isenberg, the existence of racial problems alongside class problems seems
like a given rather than a complex tangle of ideologies and motivations
waiting to be explored. Time and time again, she notes that there is
racial conflict, then moves on to issues that seem more interesting. On
the topic of school desegregation, for example, she masterfully spins out
the biography of Hazel Bryan, the angry white student yelling in Will
Counts famous photograph of school desegregation in Little Rock,
Arkansas. Hazel is a "recognized white trash type" her family was part
of an influx of poor whites in Little Rock, her father was a disabled
veteran and her mother a factory worker. Her home had no indoor plumbing.
She seems to have been a troubled student; her father might have beaten
her. And after the famous picture was taken, she married at the age of
sixteen and lived in a trailer. For Isenberg, thats it. The nasty white
girl screaming at the dignified African-American student is white trash.
There isnt any need for further examination. But who didnt already know
that? And so what?
In the end, in spite of all its ambition, White Trash makes a
fairly simple point: poor and working-class whites have always been part
of the American mix, and although we have sometimes valorized our rugged
frontiersmen and laid-back Bubbas, we have usually lectured them, called
them names and treated them badly. But who are these "white trash?" Is
there a single "white trash" culture, or is "white trash" different in the
hamlets of Appalachia than it is in the California desert? Is "white
trash" upwardly mobile, or do its members stay mired in poverty generation
after generation? What has happened as some elements of "white trash" have
found fame and political fortune? And why is there not more solidarity
between the white working class and the black or brown workers that might
share its concerns? White Trash is sometimes a confusing and
frustrating book, but it has shown that there is plenty of material out
there for scholars who want to ask these kinds of questions. Lets
hope that the next book gives its author enough room to spin out some of
the 400 years of untold "white trash" history in all its crazy and complex
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
Hardcover: 480 pages
Melynda Nuss is an attorney serving the needs of writers,
musicians, artists, filmmakers, and other creative professionals in
Austin, Texas. Her reviews have appeared in the Texas Observer
and in Culturekiosque.com.
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