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The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America 


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 1500’s 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.

Isenberg is particularly good on the etymology of "cracker."

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 rootlessness.

But the book’s 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 TV’s Beverly Hillbillies couldn’t figure out how to work their home appliances and didn’t 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.

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, that’s it. The nasty white girl screaming at the dignified African-American student is white trash. There isn’t any need for further examination. But who didn’t 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.  Let’s 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 American glory.

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
By Nancy Isenberg
Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: Viking (June 2016)
ISBN-10: 0670785970
ISBN-13: 978-0670785971

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

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