What I’m Reading: White Trash

No, White Trash is not the latest southern Gothic pulp romance; rather, as its subtitle reads, it’s The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, a 2016 book by Nancy Isenberg.

In America we have a tendency to think of ourselves as a classless society, or at least one where anybody can move from the bottom to the top with hard work and maybe a little luck. In fact, Isenberg demonstrates that class has been more pervasive throughout American history than is usually thought, and that the lower classes are often kept that way through broad societal structures and social attitudes.

I think her analysis is especially strong in the antebellum South, where she shows that slavery not only kept blacks down, by force of law, but also kept lower-class whites in their place, because the best land was taken by the large plantation owners, with only marginal land left over for the small farmers. Moreover, even the low-wage labor–as farmhands, say, or domestic servants–that provided so much employment in the North was not available to Southern whites, since slaves did nearly all menial tasks (it’s hard to compete with a wage of zero). Even if you wanted to work your way up from the bottom in the antebellum South, there was really no path for you to take, so the poor “white trash” stayed that way.

I also enjoyed and found convincing her view that class lines had already hardened in the early colonial period, when the proprietors of the English colonies imported so-called “waste people” from rural areas of the British isles to settle the dangerous frontiers, only for upper-class landowners to come in later, after the frontier had been tamed, and take the best land for themselves from “squatters” who often had no titles to places they had been living for years.

Amusing (to me anyway) that my own home state of North Carolina was looked down in the colonial period on by the other colonies as a giant wasteland of poor, uneducated whites, more interested in drinking, screwing, and lazing about than working the land. In comparison to the tobacco plantations and more established society of Virginia, and the fertile lands of South Carolina that also quickly developed into plantation society, North Carolina was cursed with a lot of land too sandy, swampy, or hilly to be easy to farm. Such land attracted only economically marginal people from the fringes of Virginia, leading to a vicious circle of poverty, poor land, and lack of respect.

The book contains fascinating anecdotes and analysis throughout. One thing I found really interesting was the evolution of phraseology for the poor impoverished white lower classes–for example, the terms squatters and crackers prevailed in the early 1800s, while mudsills was a popular term in the mid-19th century, but the ever-popular white trash was first used in 1821 and had achieved widespread use by the 1850s. There are tons of little explanations of this sort, regarding all sorts of historical social phenomena, in every chapter.

If there is one disappointment, it’s the final chapter, when Isenberg takes her class analysis of American history and applies it to the current landscape, finding the existence of a persistent underclass in the United States to be a great injustice, and recommending a rather standard slate of Great Society-style interventions to change things. But–we’ve already tried your way, Ms. Isenberg, and it’s led to the widespread dissolution of traditional family structures among the poorer classes, leading to firmer entrenchment of those class divisions than ever before! If Ms. Isenberg had no especially creative new solutions to recommend, better to have left this chapter out entirely.

Despite that last chapter, I’m awarding this book my coveted “Shortcuts to Smartness” award, for providing informative reviews of nearly every important in American history from an unusual and profound perspective. It struck me as more convincing and better-researched than the superficially similar People’s History of the United States, the rather blinkered left-wing American history book from 1980 (Isenberg has citations, for one thing!). Isenberg’s book might not be as easy to read as the People’s History, a perpetual favorite among disaffected high school students, but its focus and research hold up a lot better. I’d recommend this for any student of American history who wants to know more about the important and under-researched issue of class.

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