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White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
Author:Nancy Isenberg

The study presented here reveals a complicated legacy. It’s not just a question of labeling the bottom at any given time. Rationalizing economic inequality has been an unconscious part of the national credo; poverty has been naturalized, often seen as something beyond human control. 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. The language of class that America embraced played off English attitudes toward vagrancy, and marked a transatlantic fixation with animal husbandry, demography, and pedigree. The poor were not only described as waste, but as inferior animal stocks too.

Over the years, populist themes have emerged alongside more familiar derogatory images, but never with enough force to diminish the hostility projected onto impoverished rural whites. We have seen in recent decades the rise of tribal passions through the rediscovery of “redneck roots,” a proud movement that coursed through the 1980s and 1990s. More than a reaction to progressive changes in race relations, this shift was spurred on by a larger fascination with identity politics. Roots implied that class took on the traits (and allure) of an ethnic heritage, which in turn reflected the modern desire to measure class as merely a cultural phenomenon. But as evidenced in the popularity of the “reality TV” shows Duck Dynasty and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo in recent years, white trash in the twenty-first century remains fraught with the older baggage of stereotypes of the hopelessly ill bred.

A host of well-known and lesser-known figures contributed to the long saga of America’s embattled lowly breed. These include Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Davy Crockett, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jefferson Davis, Andrew Johnson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Theodore Roosevelt, Erskine Caldwell, James Agee, Elvis Presley, Lyndon Baines Johnson, James Dickey, Billy Carter, Dolly Parton, William Jefferson Clinton, and Sarah Palin, to name a few. Examining their ideas, shifting public images, and self-images helps us to make greater sense of the curious and complicated story of American class identity.

This book tells many stories, then. One is the importance of America’s rural past. Another, and arguably the most important, is the one we as a people have trouble embracing: the pervasiveness of a class hierarchy in the United States. It begins and ends with the concepts of land and property ownership: class identity and the material and metaphoric meaning of land are closely connected. For much of American history, the worst classes were seen as extrusions of the worst land: scrubby, barren, and swampy wasteland. Home ownership remains today the measure of social mobility.

My interest in this topic goes back to graduate school, where I was fortunate to have worked with two remarkable scholars whose approach to history shaped my professional career in significant ways. Gerda Lerner, my doctoral dissertation adviser, had a keen passion for demystifying ideologies, and she instilled in me a wariness for the limits of conventional wisdom. Paul Boyer was an intellectual historian with an amazing range, who wrote with subtlety and grace about Puritan New England, nineteenth-century moral reformers, and twentieth-century religious fundamentalists. The border town of San Benito, Texas, figures into my interest in this topic as well. It was my mother’s birthplace. Her father, John MacDougall, was a modern-day colonist, bringing settlers from Canada to farm the land.

Friends and colleagues have helped this book along in crucial ways. I wish to thank those who read chapters, gave suggestions, or sent along sources: Chris Tomlins, Alexis McCrossen, Liz Varon, Matt Dennis, Lizzie Reis, Amy Greenberg, and my LSU colleague Aaron Sheehan-Dean. Lisa Francavilla managing editor of The Papers of Jefferson: Retirement Series, Charlottesville, Virginia, called my attention to a valuable letter; Charles Roberts graciously shared with me a crucial newspaper article on the resettlement community of Palmerdale, Alabama. My Viking editor, Wendy Wolf, with roots in New Orleans, was instrumental in tightening the argument and policing the prose. Wendy put an extraordinary amount of time, skill, and care into the manuscript; her thoughtful editing has taken a complex history and made it far more reader friendly, proving that academic rigor does not have to limit accessibility. Most of all, I have to thank Andy Burstein, my dearest confidant and fellow historian, whose critical eye made this a much better book.


Fables We Forget By

We know what class is. Or think we do: economic stratification created by wealth and privilege. The problem is that popular American history is most commonly told—dramatized—without much reference to the existence of social classes. It is as though in separating from Great Britain, the United States somehow magically escaped the bonds of class and derived a higher consciousness of enriched possibility. After all, the U.S. Senate is not the House of Lords. Schoolbooks teach the national narrative along the lines of “how land and liberty were won” or “how ordinary folks seized opportunity.” The hallowed American dream is the gold standard by which politicians and voters alike are meant to measure quality of life as each generation pursues its own definition of happiness unfettered by the restraints of birth (who your parents are) or station (the position you start out from in the class system).

Our cherished myths are at once bolstering and debilitating. “All men are created equal” was successfully employed as a motto to define the promise of America’s open spaces and a united people’s moral self-regard in distinguishing themselves from a host of hopeless societies abroad. The idea of America was presented by its chief promoters with great panache, a vision of how a modern republic might prove itself revolutionary in terms of social mobility in a world dominated by monarchy and fixed aristocracy.

All that is bolstering. However, the reality on the ground was and is considerably different. In the most literal terms, as we shall see, British colonists promoted a dual agenda: one involved reducing poverty back in England, and the other called for transporting the idle and unproductive to the New World. After settlement, colonial outposts exploited their unfree laborers (indentured servants, slaves, and children) and saw such expendable classes as human waste. The poor, the waste, did not disappear, and by the early eighteenth century they were seen as a permanent breed. This way of classifying human failure took hold in the United States. Every era in the continent’s vaunted developmental story had its own taxonomy of waste people—unwanted and unsalvageable. Each era had its own means of distancing its version of white trash from the mainstream ideal.

By thinking of the lower classes as incurable, irreparable “breeds,” this study reframes the relationship of race and class. Class had its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from its intersection with race. It starts with the rich and potent meaning that came with the different names given the American underclass. Long before they were today’s “trailer trash” and “rednecks,” they were called “lubbers” and “rubbish” and “clay-eaters” and “crackers”—and that’s just scratching the surface.

Lest the reader misconstrue the book’s purpose, I want to make the point unambiguously: by reevaluating the American historical experience in class terms, I expose what is too often ignored about American identity. But I’m not just pointing out what we’ve gotten wrong about the past; I also want to make it possible to better appreciate the gnawing contradictions still present in modern American society.

How does a culture that prizes equality of opportunity explain, or indeed accommodate, its persistently marginalized people? Twenty-first-century Americans need to confront this enduring conundrum. Let us recognize the existence of our underclass. It has been with us since the first European settlers arrived on these shores. It is not an insignificant part of the vast national demographic today. The puzzle of how white trash embodied this tension is one of the key questions the book presumes to answer.