Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Old History of Class in America. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.
[NOTE: Like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016), Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, had the good fortune to be published during the tumultuous 2016 presidential campaign. And, like Vance’s work, Isenberg’s book soon was dragged into a raging debate over the nature of Republican candidate Donald Trump’s “base.” In the process, both books were transformed by the “commentariat,” well-educated columnists who had pontificated about the Trump phenomenon for months—and had been proven wrong time and again— into a template that might help them understand Trump voters and, thus–perhaps–get something right for a change. After Mr. Trump emerged victorious, thanks to the Electoral College vote, both books were front and center in the ensuing post-election brouhaha, as the commentariat tried yet again to save face.
Like any good publishing house when one of its books emerged at just the right time to guarantee increased sales, Penguin arranged for Professor Isenberg to prepare a “Preface to the Paperback Edition,” and it is here that she is most explicit about her argument. In the wake of Trump’s victory, pundits described the outcome as the triumph of class over identity, but Isenberg demurs: “The truth is, it’s not one or the other: class and identity politics operate in tandem.” (xiii)
Although she believes that “the true character of American democracy cannot be generalized,” (xix) Professor Isenberg subsequently offers an “unscientific” generalization of her own: “A preoccupation with penalizing poor whites reveals an uneasy tension between what Americans are taught to think the country promises—the dream of upward mobility—and the less appealing truth that class barriers almost invariably make that dream unobtainable.” (xxviii)]
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To Isenberg, the founders of Great Britain’s southern colonies wished their New World “plantations” to serve as a dumping ground for Britain’s “waste people.” How that was accomplished varied, from John Locke’s semi-feudal Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (1669) to General James Oglethorpe’s vision that Georgia would “reform debtors and rescue poor men.” (47). To the surprise of Georgia’s founders, settlers seemed unwilling to play their assigned roles. For example, the Georgia Trustees’ ban on slavery in their settlements was a losing battle: Oglethorpe returned to Britain in 1743, never to return; and Georgia settlers were granted the right to own slaves in 1750.
The colonies’ leading “man of science,” Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Franklin, argued that the vast quantity of land available for settlement in British North America was bound to create a society of “happy mediocrity,” whose members would live lives between great wealth and great poverty. (65) By 1776, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense offered a version of Franklin’s “demographics of mediocrity” that pushed aside any notion of class as a cause of the Revolution, promising that, once the colonists freed themselves from Britain, American breeding habits would allow them to dominate the post-war world.
As early as his 1787 Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson emphasized the possibility of developing an “aristocracy of talent” in the new American republic. Years later, as President, Jefferson acquired the vast Louisiana Territory, where, he believed, yeoman farmers would flourish without recourse to slaves, manufacturing would be discouraged, and a talent-based aristocracy would emerge. Yet, despite Jefferson’s theorizing, Isenberg contends, class remained a central aspect of American society.
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By Andrew Jackson’s day, however, settlers in the American west were viewed by visitors as “crackers” or “squatters,” unflattering terms that merely updated the grim picture of colonists in North Carolina limned by wealthy Virginian William Byrd II in the late 1720s. Thus, the so-called “Era of the Common Man” did not usher in political equality; rather, the popular caricature of the “common man” was “a vivid illustration of class distinction more than he ever was a sign of respect for the lower class.” (131) Nevertheless, as the presidential election of 1840 proved, both parties in the American political system knew that “common man’s” vote must be sought—and won—no matter what promises had to be made.
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In Isenberg’s view, the image of the white lower classes in the South evolved from “squatters” to “clay-eaters” to “poor white trash” during the late antebellum period. To intellectuals north and south, they ranked even below slaves on the scale of humanity. (135-136) The link between slavery and “poor white trash” in the South remained controversial, however, as did the question of whether whites could co-exist with slaves in a West where slavery was legal.
Obviously, in the event of civil war, the South stood no chance if its soldiers were comprised solely of “aristocrats.” The president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, used his inaugural address to posit the superior manhood of all southern whites in defending the new nation and its “domestic institution” of slavery. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ proclamation that slavery was the “cornerstone” of Southern civilization also helped deflect the hostility of lower-class whites from their “aristocratic” betters. (154-158, passim) Yet, many poor whites eventually became convinced that the conflict was “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.”
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Isenberg gives cursory attention to the era of Reconstruction, for she has bigger fish to fry. She broadens her focus to consider a national trend in eugenics, the “science” of improving American society by preventing “degenerates” from breeding, through segregating and quarantining the “unfit”; castration of criminals; and sterilization of the diseased and degenerate. Perhaps not surprisingly, “the rural South stood out as a place of social and now eugenic backwardness.” (195)
From the rather vaguely defined eugenics movement, Isenberg moves to the impact of the Great Depression on American society. Popular culture considered white southerners prototypical “forgotten men,” and feared that the nation might be imperiled if it continued to ignore the poverty and economic insecurity of its citizens (sound familiar?). Yet, “a fear of unleashing genuine class upheaval—which even elite liberals were loath to do—led significant numbers to blame the poor [whites] for their own failure.” (227)
In looking at Post World War II America, Isenberg examines the “cult of the country boy,” a quick romp through Elvis Presley, Andy Griffith, Lyndon Johnson, and The Beverly Hillbillies, among others, who kept the “hick” before the American people and an increasingly intrusive media. “White trash” did not live in suburbia, though they might populate trailer parks on the edges. Angry, housecoat-clad, curler-bedecked women, protesting integration of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957, were welcomed by those who blamed “white trash” for the South’s most glaring image problems.
Although southern politicians like Tennessee’s Estes Kefauver tried to domesticate the “hillbilly image” to appeal to the electorate, Isenberg believes that the most successful hillbilly wannabe was President Lyndon Johnson, at least until “his” Vietnam War helped kill the “War on Poverty,” programs designed to uplift the nation’s poor, many of them in the South, through the power of the federal government.
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And yet, all was not lost for the cultural image of “white trash.” Isenberg maintains that, “As identity politics rose as a force for good in the last decades of the twentieth century, authenticity was to be achieved by registering, and then heeding, the voices of previously marginalized Americans.” (269–again, sound familiar?) Professor Isenberg implicitly assumes that President Richard Nixon’s much-ballyhooed “Silent Majority” was comprised of lower-class whites, and that, by the late 1980s, “white trash” had been “rebranded as an ethnic identity, with its own readily identifiable cultural forms.” (270) Yet, the cinematic picture of poor white southerners, in, say, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Deliverance (1972) remained familiar—and negative. Ethnic identity was a positive attribute only if a group demonstrated the traditional American virtue of upward social mobility—otherwise, they were “trailer trash” and “welfare queens.” (277)
In Georgia, Democrat Jimmy Carter used a “redneck” campaign to win the governorship in 1970, but six years later, when he won the presidency, Carter ran—and won—according to one observer, on everything he wasn’t: “He wasn’t a racist, an elitist, a sexist, a Washingtonian, a dimwit, a liar, a lawyer. . . an ideologue, a paranoid, a crook.” (282) We know how well that worked out for Carter in 1980, when he ran for re-election against Republican Ronald Reagan, who had a long movie career playing roles that bore little resemblance to his real self. (But at least Reagan wasn’t from the South.)
The culmination of white trash and redneck chic came, by Isenberg’s reckoning, during the mid-1990s. Bill Clinton’s victory in the 1992 presidential election and his years in the White House saw “the national spotlight focused once more on the uneasy relationship between class identity and American democracy.” (296) At least until the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in 1998, Clinton had elevated his “white trash” hillbilly persona to a popular culture staple. Ten years later, Isenberg offers acidly, the Republicans nominated for vice president on John McCain’s ticket “their own (effectively) white trash candidate,” a veritable “white trash Barbie,” Sarah Palin. (303-304)
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In an epilogue on “the long legacy of white trash,” Professor Isenberg returns to her main point, the use of tropes like “white trash” and “hillbilly” to deny the influence of class in the nation’s past and, instead, to blame “inferior” people. She counters that those in power decide who are citizens and how much voice they’ll actually have in public affairs. (Once again, I’ve got to ask, sound familiar?)
Yet, Isenberg argues, the nation’s underclass, whatever its name, has been part of our story from the beginning, whether or not those who govern, or who write American history, are willing to admit it. Even if inequality exists, the establishment contends, it’s because some Americans can’t “cut the mustard” when it comes to social and economic progress. “If the American dream were real, upward mobility would be far more in evidence,” Isenberg asserts. (319)
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In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance delves deeply into the plight of members of his family and others like them, expatriates from Appalachia looking for a new start in the industrial Midwest. It’s a very personal study, but one firmly grounded in an understanding of social and economic contexts.
In White Trash, Nancy Isenberg essentially offers an intellectual history of the term “white trash,” more of an “academic” volume than J. D. Vance’s. Isenberg’s poor white subjects lack agency; that is, because they left few sources of their own, she tends to view them through the lenses of her literary sources, most of them members of the elite. In a political context, the term “populism” doesn’t even appear in the index, nor does she do much with the conundrum that, during the mid-19th through the early 20th centuries, southern elites used “white trash” for their own purposes, while keeping them down otherwise.
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Both Vance and Isenberg certainly benefited from the coincidence of their books appearing during a momentous political campaign that had the “experts” baffled, looking desperately for help. Lots of copies were sold, but didn’t seem, in the end, to have had much impact. Ah, American culture! Anybody for “revenge of White Trash” in, say, 2020?
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: