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“White Trash” — a cultural and political history of an American underclass

Review of "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America" by Nancy Isenberg

The cast members of “The Beverly Hillbillies” pose in front of the White House on May 14, 1970.

WHITE TRASH: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

By Nancy Isenberg

Viking. 460 pp. $28

If slavery is America’s original sin, class may be its hidden one.

It is part of our national creed that the opportunity to achieve and improve ourselves is not predetermined at birth; that upward mobility, while hard, is possible. We are not the British, after all, trapped in some “Downton Abbey” hell of self-aware stratification — we rebelled against all that, right?

Nancy Isenberg, a professor of history at Louisiana State University, has authored a gritty and sprawling assault on this aspect of American mythmaking. Ours is very much a class-based society, she argues, and had been long before Occupy Wall Street or Bernie Sanders, long before we were a country at all. In “White Trash” Isenberg takes a very particular look at class in the United States, examining the white rural outcasts whom politicians from Andrew Jackson to Donald Trump have sought to rally, but who otherwise have remained vilified, shunned, targeted and kept apart, both physically — in poorhouses and trailer parks, through eugenic science and discriminatory public policy — and in the nation’s cultural imagination, where they have inspired mockery, kitsch and unceasing grimaces.

“The white poor have been with us in various guises, as the names they have been given across the centuries attest,” Isenberg writes. “Waste people. Offscourings. Lubbers. Bogtrotters. Rascals. Rubbish. Squatters. Crackers. Clay-eaters. Tackies. Mudsills. Scalawags. Briar hoppers. Hillbillies. Low-downers. White n—–s. Degenerates. White trash. Rednecks. Trailer trash. Swamp people.”

Isenberg looks upon old American traditions and scoffs, reinterpreting history through the prism of class divisions among the country’s white population, one more caste system in the land of the free. Colonial America, for instance, was “a place where the surplus poor, the waste people of England, could be converted into economic assets.” England’s most destitute city dwellers were sent here — including children, shipped to the colonies in a practice known as “spiriting” — creating a class of white laborers that served as “disposable property,” Isenberg recounts. “Among these unheroic transplants were roguish highwaymen, mean vagrants, Irish rebels, known whores, and an assortment of convicts shipped to the colonies for grand larcenies or other property crimes.” Not to Isenberg’s taste are the kindly tales of Puritans and Plymouth Rock, of John Smith and Pocahontas at Jamestown.

The nation’s founders, already judged for their hypocrisy on slavery, fare little better here on class. During the revolution, George Washington stated that only “the lower class of people” should serve as foot soldiers, while Thomas Jefferson considered importing German immigrants to the colonies, hoping to improve the work ethic — and the breeding stock — of farmers and laborers. “The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other animals,” the Virginian planter noted, adding, “why not in that of man?”

Terms such as “cracker” and “squatter” began as Americanisms that brought pejorative English notions of idleness and vagrancy to this side of the Atlantic, where they served as a shorthand for landless migrants. Land undergirds the enduring class hierarchy, Isenberg stresses; then, as today, property ownership determines the social pecking order. “Hereditary titles may have gradually disappeared,” she explains, “but large land grants and land titles remained central to the American system of privilege.”

By the 1830s and 1840s, the “squatter” had become “fully a symbol of partisan politics, celebrated as the iconic common man who came to epitomize Jacksonian democracy,” Isenberg writes. Taking and clearing land through violence and extra-legal tactics, Jackson emerges as “the political heir of the cracker and squatter.” New and benign versions would reappear in presidential politics, whether with Jimmy Carter (who once quoted a supporter calling him “white trash made good”), Bill Clinton (a self-described Elvis-loving “Bubba,” whose White House dalliances led to a “white trash outing on the grand national stage”) or Sarah Palin, whom Isenberg depicts as “one-half hockey mom and one-half hot militia babe.”

It should hardly surprise that “White Trash” focuses on white people, and Isenberg lingers on how, even among whites, perceived differences in skin color signaled a class split. Nineteenth-century cultural commentators, she writes, often derided the “unnatural complexions” of the white lower classes, with their flesh the color of “yellow parchment” and their copious offspring bearing a “cadaverous, bloodless look.” And from skin hue, it was a short jump to supposed congenital and cognitive disparities. “More than tallow-colored skin, it was the permanent mark of intellectual stagnation, the ‘inert’ minds, the ‘fumbling’ speech,” Isenberg writes. After the Civil War, “hardworking blacks were suddenly the redeemed ones,” while poor whites remained “undeveloped, evolutionarily stagnant creatures.”

Throughout this book, such references to race are fleeting and awkward, appearing in parentheticals or occasional asides. At a time when so much of the national debate over inequality centers on racial divides, Isenberg maintains that “class has its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from its intersection with race.” Still, it’s hard to skirt over race when dissecting class in America. At times, the author justifies her choice by implying a sort of equivalence of hardship, as when she emphasizes that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs “targeted both urban ghettos and impoverished white areas of Appalachia” (the italics are Isenberg’s) or when she argues, somewhat improbably, that in the 1920s poor whites “found their lot comparable to suffering African Americans when it came to the justice system.”

Isenberg even reinterprets the Civil War as a class struggle alongside a racial one: Northerners looked down on poor Southern whites as proving that reliance on slavery weakened free white workers; Confederates countered that the North debased itself by relying on white labor for menial tasks. “It is no exaggeration to say that in the grand scheme of things,” Isenberg contends, “Union and Confederate leaders saw the war as a clash of class systems wherein the superior civilization would reign triumphant.” (Tip: Whenever a sentence begins with “It is no exaggeration to say that . . .” you can safely assume that the rest of the sentence contains an exaggeration.)

“White Trash” features a fascinating exploration of the cultural portrayals of its subject. Sitcoms from the 1960s such as “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. and “The Beverly Hillbillies” show how the underclass has long produced more amusement than concern or respect. The Ewell family in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960) may be American literature’s purest distillation of white trash, Isenberg writes, emblematic of how “ ‘redneck’ had come to be synonymous with an almost insane bigotry.” The 1972 film “Deliverance”, based on James Dickey’s novel and featuring rape and murder in backwoods Georgia, offers a devastating vision of rustic Southern life. And despite a sort of “redneck chic” phase in the 1980s and 1990s, Isenberg laments the continued “gawking at rural Georgian white trashdom” in TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and similar shows.

“We are a country that imagines itself as democratic, and yet the majority has never cared much for equality,” Isenberg concludes. “Because that’s not how breeding works. Heirs, pedigree, lineage: a pseudo-aristocracy of wealth still finds a way to assert its social power.”

The irony of the Trump presidential campaign — and I confess, the compulsion to read Trumpian implications into any new book has become irresistible — is that the candidate personifies that very pseudo-aristocracy of wealth that has long shunned the white working class, yet he draws his greatest support from it. And that Trump amassed his fortune as a real estate developer, when land and property for so long have marked the red lines between rich and poor, well, that’s just icing.

In an echo of arguments by Thomas Frank and others, Isenberg worries that today we once again are seeing “a large unbalanced electorate that is regularly convinced to vote against its collective self-interest.” Voters are persuaded through fear-filled messages and a false sense of identity, but a certain kind of communicator helps, too. Isenberg tells the 1840 story “The Arkansas Traveler,” in which a politician campaigning for office stops in the backcountry and asks a squatter for refreshment and support. The squatter “had to be wooed for his vote,” Isenberg writes. “He had no patience for a candidate who refused to speak his language.” So the man dismounts his horse, takes the squatter’s fiddle and shows he can play his kind of music. “Once the politician returned to the mansion, however, nothing had changed in the life of the squatter.”

Trump, if nothing else, has shown he knows how to play that fiddle.

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