Nancy Isenberg’s historical treatise about class in America offers rich insights into current political fault lines. The first third of the book provides an erudite romp as Isenberg schools us on how settlers within North America who were detached from land ownership were viewed as “beggarly spawn”. If you did not exploit the land entrepreneurially, you were mere occupants: “lubbers” were identified and mocked. The land war for the West (aka the Civil War) underscored such issues and during Reconstruction, the “twin evils of poverty and vagrancy” nurtured even worse race and class divides. As President Lyndon B. Johnson would later observe: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
The term “cracker” appeared in British documents as early as the 1760s, and 19th-century leaders railed against the gaunt, toothless tumbleweed of a people with “lubber’s blood”, blaming sloth and deformity on inbreeding. In 1849, Texas legislators contemplated a measure to castrate criminals, reflecting the urge to stamp out undesirable bloodlines. This measure was rejected, but Southern legislators would notoriously embrace eugenic principles and sterilisation by the middle of the next century.
White Trash chronicles polemics about degenerates – feared as pollutants that weakened the nation. Fear led to much worse than ridicule, as a generation of American historians have explored. Echoing Jacqueline Jones’ 1992 study The Dispossessed: America’s Underclass from the Civil War to the Present, Isenberg’s timely survey demonstrates how Americans confuse physical mobility with social mobility, and fantasise that all are welcome aboard the equality escalator – all the while blaming the victim if economic success fails to materialise. White Trash makes bold claims for embracing rather than evading this legacy.
Isenberg demonstrates that in the South, statesmen believed that “sandhillers” reflected ecological deficiencies, while “clay eaters” were genetically predisposed to self-destruct. By later chapters, she explores how white trash boundaries expanded over time, sprawling to the north and west: televangelists Tammy Faye (Minnesota born) and Jim Bakker (from Michigan) are two of her most vivid examples of the spread.
During the last third of the book, Isenberg tackles dozens of topics, including Elvis, Appalachia, hillbillies versus rednecks, the cult of the country boy, shiftlessness, and white trash in fiction, films and popular culture (with a spooky penchant for Deliverance and a clear distaste for Walmart). She confronts white trash racism explicitly in her acidic sketch of Hazel Bryan, a white schoolgirl caught shouting in anger at a black pupil in a photo taken during the 1957 Little Rock school desegregation crisis.
In the final sections, White Trash brilliantly contextualises good old boys’ politics in presidential campaigns – Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and a gloss of Sarah Palin’s 2008 candidacy. Isenberg has missed an opportunity by not including Anna Nicole Smith’s posing with Cheez Doodles on an iconic 1994 New York magazine cover, but she nevertheless serves up plenty of food for thought. She closes with stinging criticism for political amnesia. White Trash claims in its epilogue: “Our very identity as a nation, no matter what we tell ourselves, is intimately tied up with the dispossessed.” Isenberg suggests that whether America likes it or not, Americans must accept our white trash legacy: a sobering reflection for the 2016 electoral season.
Catherine Clinton is Denman endowed professor in American history, University of Texas at San Antonio, and president of the Southern Historical Association.
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
By Nancy Isenberg
Viking, 480pp, £21.99
Published 4 August 2016