White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg (Epub)



Ebook Info

  • Published: 2016
  • Number of pages: 476 pages
  • Format: Epub
  • File Size: 7.32 MB
  • Authors: Nancy Isenberg


The wretched and landless poor have existed from the time of the earliest British colonial settlement to today’s hillbillies. They were alternately known as “waste people,” “offals,” “rubbish,” “lazy lubbers,” and “crackers.” By the 1850s, the downtrodden included so-called “clay eaters” and “sandhillers,” known for prematurely aged children distinguished by their yellowish skin, ragged clothing, and listless minds.

Surveying political rhetoric and policy, popular literature and scientific theories over four hundred years, Isenberg upends assumptions about America’s supposedly class-free society––where liberty and hard work were meant to ensure real social mobility. Poor whites were central to the rise of the Republican Party in the early nineteenth century, and the Civil War itself was fought over class issues nearly as much as it was fought over slavery. Reconstruction pitted poor white trash against newly freed slaves, which factored in the rise of eugenics–-a widely popular movement embraced by Theodore Roosevelt that targeted poor whites for sterilization. These poor were at the heart of New Deal reforms and LBJ’s Great Society; they haunt us in reality TV shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty. Marginalized as a class, white trash have always been at or near the center of major political debates over the character of the American identity.

We acknowledge racial injustice as an ugly stain on our nation’s history. With Isenberg’s landmark book, we will have to face the truth about the enduring, malevolent nature of class as well.

User’s Reviews

Review “This is breathtaking social history and dazzling cultural analysis at its best.” —Michael Eric Dyson, author of Holler if You Hear Me –This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition. Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. Clinton’s embarrassing second term didn’t seem to provide lessons, insofar as the Republicans plunged ahead with their own (effectively) white trash candidate in 2008, Alaska governor Sarah Palin. The devastatingly direct Frank Rich of the New York Times referred to the Republican ticket as “Palin and McCain’s Shotgun Marriage.” Did the venerable John McCain of Arizona, ordinarily a savvy politician, have a lapse in judgment here? Slate produced an online video of Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, painting it as a forgettable wasteland, a place “to get gas and pee” before getting back on the road. Wasilla was elsewhere described as the “punch line for most redneck jokes told in Anchorage.” Erica Jong wrote in the Huffington Post, “White trash America certainly has allure for voters,” which explains the photoshopped image of Palin that appeared on the Internet days after her nomination. In a stars-and-stripes bikini, holding an assault rifle and wearing her signature black-rimmed glasses, Palin was one-half hockey mom and one-half hot militia babe. News of the pregnancy of Palin’s teenage daughter Bristol led to a shotgun engagement to Levi Johnston, which was arranged in time for the Republican National Convention. Us Weekly featured Palin on the cover, with the provocative title, “Babies, Lies, and Scandal.” Maureen Dowd compared Palin to Eliza Doolittle of My Fair Lady fame, in getting prepped for her first off-script television interview. Could there be any more direct allusion to her questionable class origins? The Palin melodrama led one journalist to associate the Alaska clan with the plot of a Lifetime television feature. The joke was proven true to life two years later, when the backwoods candidate gave up her gig as governor and starred in her own reality TV show, titled Sarah Palin’s Alaska. Palin’s candidacy was a remarkable event on all accounts. She was only the second female of any kind and the first female redneck to appear on a presidential ticket. John McCain’s advisers admitted that she had been selected purely for image purposes, and they joined the chorus trashing the flawed candidate after Obama’s historic victory. Leaks triggered a media firestorm over Palin’s wardrobe expense account. An angry aide categorized the Palins’ shopping spree as “Wasilla hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast to coast.” The Alaskan made an easy and attractive target. Journalists were flabbergasted when she showed no shame in displaying astounding lapses in knowledge. Her bungled interview with NBC host Katie Couric represented more than gotcha journalism: Palin didn’t just misconstrue facts; she came across as a woman who was unable to articulate a single complex idea. (The old cracker slur as “idle-headed” seemed to fit.) But neither did Andrew Jackson run as an “idea man” in an earlier century, and it was his style of backcountry hubris that McCain’s staffers had been hoping to revive. Shooting wolves from a small plane, bragging about her love of moose meat, “Sarah from Alaska” positioned herself as a regular Annie Oakley on the campaign trail. It was not enough to rescue her from the mainstream (what she self-protectively called “lamestream”) media. Sarah Palin did not have a self-made woman’s résumé. She could not offset the “white trash” label as the Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton could. She had attended six unremarkable colleges. She had no military experience (à la navy veteran Jimmy Carter), though she did send one son off to Iraq. Writing in the New Yorker, Sam Tanenhaus was struck by Palin’s self-satisfied manner: “the certitude of being herself, in whatever unfinished condition, will always be good enough.” Maureen Dowd quipped that Palin was a “country-music queen without the music.” She lacked the self-deprecating humor of Dolly Parton—not to mention the natural talent. The real conundrum was why, even more than how, she was chosen: the white trash Barbie was at once visually appealing and disruptive, and she came from a state whose motto on license plates read, “The Last Frontier.” The job was to package the roguish side of Palin alongside a comfortable, conventional female script. In the hit country single “Redneck Woman” (2004), Gretchen Wilson rejected Barbie as an unreal middle-class symbol—candidate Palin’s wardrobe bingeing was her Barbie moment. Her Eliza Doolittle grand entrance came during the televised debate with Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. As the nation waited to see what she looked like and how she performed, Palin came onstage in a little black dress, wearing heels and pearls, and winked at the camera. From the neck down she looked like a Washington socialite, but the wink faintly suggested a gum-chewing waitress at a small-town diner. Embodying these two extremes, the fetching hockey mom image ultimately lost out to what McCain staffers identified as both “hillbilly” and “prima donna.” Sex formed a meaningful subtext throughout Palin’s time of national exposure. In terms of trash talk, daughter Bristol Palin’s out‑of‑wedlock pregnancy was handled rather differently from Bill Clinton’s legendary philandering. Bloggers muddied the waters by spreading rumors about Sarah’s Down syndrome child, Trig: “Was he really Bristol’s?” they asked. A tale of baby swapping was meant to suggest a new twist on the backwoods immorality of inbred illegitimacy. Recall that it was Bill Clinton’s mother, Virginia, whose pedigree most troubled the critics. The legacy held: the rhetoric supporting eugenics (and the sterilization laws that followed) mainly targeted women as tainted breeders. Sarah Palin’s Fargo-esque accent made her tortured speech patterns sound even worse. Former TV talk show host Dick Cavett wrote a scathing satirical piece in which he dubbed her a “serial syntax killer” whose high school English department deserved to be draped in black. He wanted to know how her swooning fans, who adored her for being a “mom like me,” or were impressed to see her shooting wolves, could explain how any of those traits would help her to govern. We had been down this road before as citizens and voters. “Honest Abe” Lincoln was called an ape, a mudsill, and Kentucky white trash. Andrew Jackson was a rude, ill-tempered cracker. (And like Palin, his grammar was nothing to brag about.) The question loomed: At what point does commonness cease to be an asset, as a viable form of populism, and become a liability for a political actor? And should anyone be shocked when voters are swept up in an “almost Elvis-sized following,” as Cavett said Palin’s were? When you turn an election into a three-ring circus, there’s always a chance that the dancing bear will win. –This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.

Reviews from Amazon users, collected at the time the book is getting published on UniedVRG. It can be related to shiping or paper quality instead of the book content:

⭐ I gave this book five stars, which according to the website means, “I love it.” I did not love it. In fact, I disliked the book in many ways. At the same time, I could not put it down. As a career military person, I had always regarded myself as mostly conservative (even while attending UC Berkeley in the 1970’s). I retired from the military around the turn of the century (or millennium, whichever you prefer), and, at around 45 years old, started attempting to live an “examined life.” I stopped regarding myself as a “non-partizan conservative,” and felt that I was more of a “traditional semi-progressive.” If that sounds stupid and naive, that is because I was stupid and naive. I was a middle-aged white man who thought that racism was behind us (except for some tiny lunatic fringe in some “Dogpatch” ultra-rural area). I also believed, buckle and thong, in our judicial system, and truly believed that a black man could get as fair a trial as a white man throughout the United States.In the last two years of turmoil, I started reading more news online than just the BBC. I discovered Slate and The Economist, and my world view started changing. I ran across a review of this book on Slate.com. I bought it on Amazon. I started reading it early last summer, and couldn’t put it down. It is meticulously researched and extremely well-written. I hated it, mainly because of how stupid it told me I was, but also for how it made me almost physically ill about how people, especially those in power with vested interests, think about and manipulate others, and about how the manipulated people are brought to commit heinous acts that are ultimately against their own interests.During a week surveying railroad in the Mojave Desert, I finished the book and then read it again. It made me understand a lot of things that seemed kind of muddled before, like what my black friends in the military had told me, and where some of the redneck adults from my lower middle class childhood were coming from, and also what a lot of “trouble-making activists” from the 1960’s to now were really saying.While definitely lower middle class on the economic scale, my family has always put huge stock in reading and education. We were raised to never look down on others for their social and economic status. I was taught to look down upon self-proclaimed “elites”, and yet to have tastes and education that were usually available only to elites. I later learned that “elites” is a term with a lot of vagueness about it. Academics and elites are definitely two different things, culturally, socially, and economically. Culturally, most “elites” wouldn’t know Anatole France from the Tour de France, if they had, in fact, heard of either. Having a college degree (and I DO NOT disparage the accomplishment) does not confer upon the graduate any real claim to academia or even literacy. Often, it seems to be a hurdle that has to be taken and suffered due to family expectations. As a former military officer, I knew fellow officers who were college graduates who were yet barely literate. However unbelievably ignorant they were, they were acceptable, having come from the “right” background.Thanks to Nancy Isenberg’s book, my seventh decade (I recently turned 60) has become far more complex for me. While having been taught NOT to ever despise people of lower social/economic standing, I have to despise many of their prejudices and beliefs. While disliking elites and elitism, I find that many of them share beliefs and tastes with me (although definitely not most of them). Trying (and hopefully achieving at least a fraction) to live an “examined life” has been far more difficult after reading Ms. Isenberg’s words. To say the least, learning that Locke was a major shareholder in a slave trade company makes for a certain piquancy while reading his philosophy. My semi-retired life might have been emotionally easier had I not read her book, but I will always be grateful (however annoyed) that I’m less of a stooge of politically acceptable history (not to be confused with the partizan/political battle cry of “politically correct”). In this case, “correct” and truth are two very different things. Thanks, Nancy, for bringing me the truth.

⭐ If you wish to delude yourself that Republicans began mistreating the poor and lower middle class in American 100 years before the formation of the Republican party, then read this book.This author is stretching the truth, obviously to warp history, with an obvious political agenda.I made I to the Civil War chapter, when I could no longer tolerate it.

⭐ This book makes the case that the poor arrived 500 years ago when America was first settled, and most of them never rose to the middle or upper classes because “land was the principal source of wealth, and those without any had little chance to escape servitude. It was the stigma of landlessness that would leave its mark on white trash from this day forward”. The poor and their ancestors remained in the underclass for the most part, and still are today.Britain saw sending the poor and criminals to distant lands as a good way to get rid of them. And often done forcefully, as Bailyn’s book “The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675” explains in great detail.English writer Richard Hakluyt (1553-1616) envisioned America as becoming a workhouse, “a place where the surplus poor, the waste people of England, could be converted into economic assets. The land and the poor could be harvested together, to add to—rather than continue to subtract from—the nation’s wealth. Among the first waves of workers were the convicts, who would be employed at heavy labor, felling trees and burning them for pitch, tar, and soap ash; others would dig in the mines for gold, silver, iron, and copper. The convicts were not paid wages. As debt slaves, they were obliged to repay the English commonwealth for their crimes by producing commodities for export. In return, they would be kept from a life of crime, avoiding, in Hakluyt’s words, being “miserably hanged,” or packed into prisons to “pitifully pine away” and die.”“During the 1600s, far from being ranked as valued British subjects, the great majority of early colonists were classified as surplus population and expendable “rubbish,” a rude rather than robust population. The English subscribed to the idea that the poor dregs would be weeded out of English society in four ways. Either nature would reduce the burden of the poor through food shortages, starvation, and disease, or, drawn into crime, they might end up on the gallows. Finally, some would be impressed by force or lured by bounties to fight and die in foreign wars, or else be shipped off to the colonies. Such worthless drones as these could be removed to colonial outposts that were in short supply of able-bodied laborers and, lest we forget, young “fruitful” females. Once there, it was hoped, the drones would be energized as worker bees.The colonists were a mixed lot. On the bottom of the heap were men and women of the poor and criminal classes. Among these unheroic transplants were roguish highwaymen, mean vagrants, Irish rebels, known whores, and an assortment of convicts shipped to the colonies for grand larceny or other property crimes, as a reprieve of sorts, to escape the gallows. Not much better were those who filled the ranks of indentured servants, who ranged in class position from lowly street urchins to former artisans burdened with overwhelming debts. They had taken a chance in the colonies, having been impressed into service and then choosing exile over possible incarceration within the walls of an overcrowded, disease-ridden English prison. Labor shortages led some ship captains and agents to round up children from the streets of London and other towns to sell to planters across the ocean—this was known as “spiriting.” Young children were shipped off for petty crimes. One such case is that of Elizabeth “Little Bess” Armstrong, sent to Virginia for stealing two spoons. Large numbers of poor adults and fatherless boys gave up their freedom, selling themselves into indentured servitude, whereby their passage was paid in return for contracting to anywhere from four to nine years of labor. Their contracts might be sold, and often were, upon their arrival. Unable to marry or choose another master, they could be punished or whipped at will. Owing to the harsh working conditions they had to endure, one critic compared their lot to “Egyptian bondage.” Discharged soldiers, also of the lower classes, were shipped off to the colonies.”At all times, white trash reminds us of one of the American nation’s uncomfortable truths: the poor are always with us. 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.Whatever you’ve read in school was fake history, finally the true story of our nation.

⭐ Got the book, skimmed it ..in the end since I was defined throughout my childhood, as White Trash, find the label white trash so very offensive still as a woman in my sixties, had to put it well you got,it in the TRASH.. Labels are so very painful but they at least give you the compassion not to judge or put a label on any human. Read lots of history books, some parts of the book I skimmed I did think interesting but in the end the author seemed to stereotype poor whites.

⭐ The book is good. There is hard information that surprised me. I didn’t like the Audible version, because of the tone of the narrator. The point of view is in the text as well. But, you will find information is compelling. I needed put aside the irksome tone and be grateful for a great piece of work. If you share my Southern heritage, you need not be defensive. The book is really about class in the U.S. not focused in a negative way on our peculiar institution. The class issues are not limited to the South, but are sharply defined by slavery. Go for it, you will be enlightened.

⭐ This book is awful. It reads like something a sociologist would write. A good writer can make can make history or seriouscultural essays fun to read. Think Gore Vidal or Tom Wolfe. This author evencan’t engage a reader long enough to make him sleepy. Frustration sets in after just a few pages and you’re left ruing the day clicked on Amazon to order it.

⭐ Now, granted, every author has their own agenda when writing a book, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, because each of us is seated within the context of our own lives and culture. That should go without saying, but it seems to be a missing piece of modern dialogue … so I say it upfront. Nevertheless, I found Isenberg’s “White Trash” riveting.Using class as the lens through which to view American history opens up an important perspective regarding the society we live in now. It’s easy to say “oh, sure, we all know that the poor have been and are looked down upon” but this book brings the reality home in a more visceral and disturbing way. We need to see and FEEL the shadow side of our own history if we want to continue evolving our society for the betterment of all humans, all life.Most of us were taught the pretty image of the first colonists in Virginia and Massachusetts, those seeking religious freedom or increased fortune. And, yes, they comprised a portion of the early population, although some statistics reveal them as less than fifty percent of settlers. The rest? They represented as Isenberg says, “England’s opportunity to thin out its prisons and siphon off thousands; here was an outlet for the unwanted, a way to remove vagrants and beggars, to be rid of London’s eyesore population.” These were children as well as adults. The indentured masses were fodder, most of their offspring filled the same niche.I’m an American mutt with a solid 350-years of ancestral footprints embedded in the soil of this continent. My roots go deep, the bones of thousands of my ancestors are buried here, their blood spilled across the land as they toiled, migrated, gave birth, fought, and died. Many of those ancestors are the ones that the elites and upper-classes would have referred to as white trash, rubbish, rednecks, hillbillies, and more. As time and settlement expanded, I would guess they were often like the individual who (as Isenberg puts it) “though coarse and ragged in his dress and manners … at times described as hospitable and generous, someone who invited weary travelers into his humble cabin. Yet his more favorable cast rarely lasted after the woods were cut down and settled towns and farms appeared. As civilization approached, the backwoodsman was expected to lay down roots, purchase land, and adjust his savage ways to polite society–or move on.” Unfortunately, many of these woods-families couldn’t afford to buy the few acres they had been living on, barely getting by. I can imagine this is one of the reasons my ancestors came to Missouri when it was opened up to homesteading in the early 19th century — it was their chance to own land, even if some of it was thick woods on rocky ground suitable only for subsistence farming.For hundreds of years, if one didn’t own land or property, you were inferior. As Isenberg sums it up: “The British colonial imprint was never really erased either. The ‘yeoman’ was a British class, reflecting the well-established English practice of equating moral worth to cultivation of the soil.” How is that reflected in our so-called modern society?This book provides a wealth of insight about the American class system that has been present from the beginning and still exists, whether we want to see it or not. Surely we can do better.

⭐ Maybe someday when the political environment is different, I’ll be able to appreciate this book more. I wanted to soak in all the material but the pacing of the book made this impossible.Isenberg presented a wealth of information but struggled to do so in a way that drove home any thesis or position. Seemingly random statements were tossed in the middle of a paragraph. At times there seemed to be no statistics to support statements of ‘majority’.The book felt rushed and unedited. There was a lot of insight into familiar historical figures’ ideas on class yet many times there weren’t connections made to policies, laws, or whether it was s prevailing thought versus limited to a class of elites.From the several times I referenced the endnotes, it’s clear she delved deeply into research. It is just that she failed to translate that research into an engaging narrative about this fascinating topic.

⭐ The history is worthwhile, but the author does not have any sympathy with her subjects. She buys into every white trash stereotype, and never sees the strengths and self reliance of poor whites. Not surprising. Poor whites are the only minority in the USA that can be insulted and denigrated with impunity.Just for one example, she goes on and on about how trashy Dolly Parton dresses, and never mentions that Parton won ten Grammy Awards, had 49 nominations, Parton is also among a select group to have received at least one nomination from the Academy Awards, Grammy Awards, Tony Awards, and Emmy Awards.White Trash/Black music conquered the world, not once but three times, Minstrel , Jazz, and Rock. Little stuff like that.I could go on, but why bother?

⭐ Most of it was just stupid typical anti trump whining just like you find in newspapers and on tv. One thing that I have seen in many articles which shows the so-called writers are copying the same original source. None of them has noticed that Charleston has not been the capital of South Carolina since the early eighteenth century. There is no Statehouse there. The protest for and against the Confederate battle flag was held in the City of Columbia by mostly people from out of state.


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