What passes for American historical consciousness often is a sanitized, feel-good, near-Disney version of our past. As a result, substantive history for general readers that moves beyond our grade-school fables often ends up framing itself as revisionism, a debunking that undermines parts of our mythologies of national origins, American exceptionalism, turkeys, kindhearted Puritans.
Our tallest tale, of course, is that the nation’s heritage is one free of class strictures. America’s belief in that is, of course, tenuous and fraught, particularly during times of economic suffering and election years like the present one. With “White Trash: The 400-Year Old Untold History of Class in America,” historian Nancy Isenberg makes a case for what she sees as the naked truth. The book is an eloquent synthesis of the country’s history of class stratification, one that questions whether the United States is indeed a place where all are created equal.
“White Trash” powerfully unites four centuries of history — economic, political, cultural, and pseudo-scientific — to show how thoroughly the notion of class is woven into the national fabric. As Isenberg writes, “White Trash” strives to disabuse “readers of the notion that upward mobility is a function of the founders’ ingenious plan, or that Jacksonian democracy was liberating, or that the Confederacy was about states’ rights rather than preserving class and racial distinctions.”
According to Isenberg, we have historically relied on two primary distinctions between the filthy poor and the rest of the nation. First, ownership of land and property signaled a quality family — to this day, homeownership remains a class signifier. People without were viewed dimly.
Second, the poor were seen as deriving from a lower quality genetic stock, a “scientific” classification that has been as persistent as it has been odious — witness, for instance, the popularity of American eugenic schemes in the first two decades of the 20th century. “[P]overty has been naturalized, often seen as something beyond human control,” Isenberg writes. “By this measure, poor whites had to be classified as a distinct breed. In other words, breeding was not about the cultivation of social manners or skills, but something far more sinister: an imposed inheritance.”
Thus was it true, she notes, from the beginning. Among the goals of British colonial interests in America was the reduction of “poverty back in England’’ by “transporting the idle and unproductive to the New World.’’ After settlement, exploited indentured servants, slaves, and children were viewed as “expendable classes . . . and by the early eighteenth century [such classes] were seen as a permanent breed.’’
Isenberg, a Louisiana State University history professor and author of biographies of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Aaron Burr, traces her argument across the centuries, from Jamestown to “Deliverance’’ and beyond. The precise details vary from generation to generation. Changes in the vernacular signal the kaleidoscopic way we’ve insulted poor Americans: rubbish people, waste people, clay eaters, crackers, rednecks, white trash. Economic and cultural situations evolve, but in the rhetoric of America there is always a place at the bottom for poor whites.
And what of African-Americans? Links between class and race are undeniable. but, according to Isenberg, acknowledging that class has “its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from its intersection with race’’ reframes the relationship.
One of the book’s more fascinating themes explores the cynical way that poor whites and blacks have been played against each other. In the lead up to the Civil War arguments about slavery’s adverse affects on the white working poor were prominent. “A slave economy,” so the argument went, “monopolized the soil, while closing off opportunities for nonslaveholding white men to support their families.” This argument existed alongside the belief in the racial superiority of whites, regardless of wealth. It’s worth considering that both notions embrace assumptions about the intrinsic inferiority of whole classes of people.
Isenberg covers a lot of ground. In many ways “White Trash” feels like three books, with dividing lines at the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the advent of what we’d recognize as modern popular “culture” (“The Beverly Hillbillies,’’ “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,’’ and most recently “Duck Dynasty’’ and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’’). Isenberg formally sections the book off at these points, but with each historical change there is a shift with the archives she’s using so a change to the tone and texture. Regardless of the era under discussion, the poor are more spoken about than allowed to speak in “White Trash.” This feels unavoidable: In addition to economic want, impoverishment tends to rob one of a first person place in the historical archive.
Of course, at heart we know that class marbles American society. Most Americans acknowlege that they come from a class that doesn’t satisfy the definition of an elite. Isenberg attends to this, writing that since the 1980s the idea of white trash has been “rebranded as an ethnic identity, with its own readily identifiable cultural forms: food, speech patterns, tastes, and, for some, nostalgic memories.” Yet this kind of class pride doesn’t assume inferiority. Folks self-identify as white trash while still assuming that there is a promise of class mobility in America. This attempt to co-opt the term fails as a tool for empowerment and becomes merely a cultural designator more than a marker of a position in the economic and political continuum of the country.
The cynical exploit and manipulate this belief, which is something to keep in mind during our strange election season. “We are a country that imagines itself as democratic,” Isenberg writes, “and yet the majority has never cared much for equality. 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 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
By Nancy Isenberg
Viking, 480 pp., illustrated, $28Michael Washburn is director of programs at the New York Council for the Humanities. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.