Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: the 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
The first thing that surprised me about Professor Nancy Isenberg was that she doesn’t apparently define “class” economically. She doesn’t discuss how we treat the financially poor; she focuses attention on how society treats its nonconformists, those who reject upper-class white social graces. Americans extol the poor, at least verbally. But roll up your sleeves and piss on your lawn? You’ve stepped outside American culture.
Class, like race, reflects less our actual state of being, and more how others treat us. Marginalized people behave in marginalized ways. From the beginning, Isenberg shares my great reservation about Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird: though forward-thinking on race, Lee proves herself downright reactionary regarding non-conforming poor whites. Like many Americans, Lee assumes those born crude will remain crude forever.
Isenberg unfolds America’s fraught history of class chronologically. Unlike the mythology our society feeds us from childhood, America’s earliest white settlers weren’t, mostly, Europe’s hardiest stock. They weren’t religious refugees or intrepid adventurers. Europe, and England especially, saw America as ready landfill for the homeland’s “waste people,” the vagrants and beggars which literate Europe undisguisedly compared to excrement and trash.
Europe sent its lowest inhabitants to America, and those who survived—which was by no means guaranteed—managed to rebuild themselves as hardy. But that happened only later. Only after that first generation, often reduced to cannibalism, died out, did anyone lionize their putative accomplishments or make them heroes. In Isenberg’s telling, this pattern of posthumously celebrating those the upper crust condemned in life repeated itself, verbatim, after Westward Expansion.
Franklin and Jefferson both wanted an open Western frontier for reasons identical to why England wanted American colonies: to dump unwanted poor whites. Early white frontier settlers were mocked as “squatters” and “crackers,” terms as hateful in their time as the N-bomb. The American bureaucracy essentially promised poor whites they could advance socially, since they were white, while reminding them they were often socially lower than slaves.
Not that the system was inflexible. As Isenberg notes, certain poor whites have infiltrated America’s higher echelons. She speaks briefly of Davy Crockett, and extensively of Andrew Jackson. Frontier politicians have often needed to prove they could play the fiddle, smoke with vigor, and drink corn liquor. Mass movements of organized poor have frequently reversed the social order, though usually only for brief stretches before money and power reassert themselves.
This played heavily into the Civil War. Each side rhetorically attempted to prove themselves the true heirs of Anglo-Saxon hardiness, immune from class consciousness, though both lied outright to do so. Simultaneously, each side embraced the insults their opponents slung: Abraham Lincoln wore fashionable tailored suits, while adopting the “mudsill” slur Jefferson Davis hung on him. The Civil War was a rhetorical battle, as much as military.
But the language hit new lows during the eugenics movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. “Well-bred” Americans long believed class traits bred true, but Darwinian evolution provided pseudoscientific justification for class bigotry. Half-understood science made a nasty witches’ brew with political demagoguery. This ugly, venom-driven movement culminated in the Supreme Court legalizing the state forcibly sterilizing anyone, mostly women, declared unfit to procreate.
Though the eugenics movement petered out, its underlying philosophy survived. The Civil Rights movement functionally pitted Blacks, who only wanted a fair shake, against poor whites, who previously accepted their lot because hey, at least they weren’t Black. This demonstrates how thoroughly, in Isenberg’s telling, race and class are accompanying social issues. Race and class are both power contests, pitting the powerless against the helpless, resulting in culture-wide paralysis.
Isenberg’s analysis continues into the present, when the white “underclass” rose against its fetters, and others squashed it down again. From Elvis Presley to Bill Clinton, much American culture in living memory has pitted rich establishmentarians against poor whites, no longer embarrassed and, now widely literate, no longer silent. This isn’t the first lower-class rising, certainly but the longest-lived. So much remains unresolved and dangerous.
In Donald Trump’s America, one wonders where the battle goes next. Two things are certain, though: the battle wasn’t unpredictable. And the poor didn’t fire the first blow.