Book review: Nancy Isenberg's 'White Trash' part II

Yesterday, I began my review of Nancy Isenberg's important new book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. I noted how she reaches back to the colonial era and the founding to demonstrate that, despite our national myths to the contrary, Americans did not really break from British ideas about class. We may have ditched Debrett's, and the shape of our class structure may have been different, but we did not really eliminate class structures, nor their political and cultural significance. We only took greater strides than European nations to keep those structures out of sight.

The myth of upward mobility did not concern early Americans, and the vastness of the continent provided a ready alternative for the poor. "There was no clear path to land and riches among the lower ranks," Isenberg writes of antebellum Americans. Tenants could easily be reduced to landless squatters. ... Federal laws were weighted in favor of wealthier speculators. The landless west of the Appalachians were more likely to pull up stakes and move elsewhere than they were to stay in one place and work their way upward." The hope that the rough-and-tumble frontier culture would separate, forever, the hard working stock from the lazy and shiftless degenerates did not come to fruition.

Indeed, sometimes the squatters and the "crackers," as they were already known, fought back. Davy Crockett, himself once a squatter, become the subject of lore even in his lifetime, and Andrew Jackson captured the White House from the cultured John Quincy Adams. She writes that "Jackson's aggressive style, his frequent resorting to duels and street fights, his angry acts of personal and political retaliation seemed to fit what one Frenchman with Jacksonian sympathies described as the westerner's 'rude instinct of masculine liberty.' " In time, the squatter became a subject of lore, and politicians came to recognize that they needed his vote. Call it the revenge of the crackers.

Isenberg deftly details the intersection of class conflicts with racial animus before, during and after the Civil War. It was at this time that the squatter became associated with the slave states, and instead of being called a cracker, he now became known as a "clay-eater" and as "poor white trash." The Southern elites labeled Abe Lincoln a "mudsill." This association of poverty with living not off the land but in it, as well as the tendency to describe political culture in bodily terms, created a political lexicon that was appropriately hostile: Henry David Thoreau called the slave holding South "a rotting corpse" that could serve as manure for the expansive West, while southerners saw themselves as the last descendants of Anglo-Saxon chivalry and believed blacks would, over time, be "deposited" in countries closer to the equator, like so many "receptacles" for trash.

This tale of class reality, its denial, and its interplay with other cultural memes, works its way through the Civil War and Reconstruction, Teddy Roosevelt's explicit blending of eugenic thinking with American imperialism, on into Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Isenberg chronicles in detail America's embrace of eugenics as policy in the 1920s, although she strangely omits any mention of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. The New Deal's impact on the South is examined in detail, showing the possibilities and the limits of social policy at alleviating poverty. Isenberg looks at the shared white-trash image cultivated intentionally by Dolly Parton and unself-consciously by Tammy Faye Bakker.

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Isenberg challenges former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin for his too-adoring appreciations of John Adams, whom Boorstin labeled a "self-made aristocrat," lionized for his "independence of public opinion," which Isenberg skewers as "redefining class arrogance as an admirable family trait." She tackles conservative writer Charlotte Hays, who dismissed the moral argument for a minimum wage by huffing that the colonists at Plymouth and Jamestown grasped that "hard work might still require 'a little starving.' " Isenberg, unwilling to abide the obfuscation of history any longer, replies, "If [Hays] was talking about the actual Jamestown, she would have said 'a lot of starving' and a little cannibalism." But Isenberg betrays her own bias again when she makes the bizarre claim that "[a]ntiabortion activists, like eugenicists, think that the state has the right to intervene in the breeding habits of poor single women." I suppose that is one way of looking at the Hyde Amendment.  

Some have criticized Isenberg for not actually writing about white trash so much as fashioning a catalogue of what elite culture has thought of the poor through 400 years. I do not share this criticism. It is true that Isenberg could have unearthed more evidence of the poor speaking for themselves. This is hard work, as the poor do not leave as much in the way of documentary evidence as the wealthy, but it can be done. Still, that complaint amounts to objecting that Isenberg did not write the book the critic wants to read. What she has produced is valuable on its own terms, and it is refreshing, too, to see historians again engaging in more sweeping analyses. The long shadow of Montaillou, and consequent suspicion of large historical narratives in favor of social history as micro-history, may finally be lifting. 

It is a fair criticism to note that Isenberg rarely considers the role of religion in American culture. Her examination of race is significant, albeit seen through a different, class-based lens, but there is no similar appreciation for the important ways religious ideas and religious culture have shaped Americans' attempts at creating a narrative of their own origins and destiny. It is ironic that in her conclusion she should write that, "Today as well we have a large unbalanced electorate that is regularly convinced to vote against its collective self-interest. These people are told that East Coast college professors brainwash the young and that Hollywood liberals make fun of them and have nothing in common with them and wish to impose an abhorrent, godless lifestyle." Godless? She is the "East Coast professor" who has ignored religion for more than 400 pages. Nor am I insisting she write the book I want to read. I am not suggesting Isenberg stray from her focus to embrace one that concerns me. I am suggesting that she rarely mentions religion as part of the intellectual and cultural air her subjects were breathing, and the book would have been better if she had included religion in the deft manner she included race.

Isenberg is nonetheless correct when she makes some trenchant observations in the book's concluding chapter. She writes, "Poor whites are still taught to hate -- but not to hate those who are keeping them in line." And, this: "The rule of nature was supposed to supplant artificial aristocracy with meritocracy. At the same time, though, it allowed people to associate human failures with different strains and inferior breeds, and to assign a certain inevitability to such failure." It is shocking, is it not, that so much of our public debate assumes limits ("a certain inevitability to such failure") of what can be accomplished, or even attempted, when it comes to alleviating the constraints of poverty? As Richard Trumka rightly noted here at NCR, so much of our public policy debates operate as if we lived at a time of scarcity, when in fact we live in the richest country in the history of the world. There is a purpose to this weighting of the discussion, to preserve the wealth and privilege of the few. "If the American dream were real," Isenberg writes, "upward mobility would be far more in evidence." Indeed.

Let us give Isenberg the last word:

Let's get it right, then. Because there was never a free market in land, the past saw as much downward as upward mobility. Historically, Americans have confused social mobility with physical mobility. The class system tracked across the land with the so-called pioneering set. We need to acknowledge that fact. Generally, it was the all-powerful speculators who controlled the distribution of good land to the wealthy and forced the poor squatter off his land. Without a visible hand, markets did not at any time, and do not now, magically pave the way for the most talented to be rewarded; the well connected were and are preferentially treated.

Our political and intellectual life would be more honest, and more just, if we took these words to heart. This fine book should, hopefully, provoke a more honest appraisal of American history and America's present, one that reckons with our addiction to class and our aversion to admitting it. 

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]


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