Pitting marginalized groups against each other is the easiest way to ensure nothing ever changes. Another oddity is a lack of poor white voices. This is a volume filled with commentary on the poor, but almost all of that commentary comes from elites. We hear a lot about what Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had to say about the lower classes. We hear far less about the experience of poverty itself, or how the poor defined themselves against the backdrop of the cosmos. I understand that there is probably a dearth of primary accounts from early colonial squatters.
My final critique is that White Trash goes to great lengths in describing how America thought about the poor. It gives very little by way of explanation as to why the poor found themselves impoverished. Isenberg details the physical ravages of poverty in the stunted, jaundiced, hook-wormed, straw-haired forms of the backcountry poor. She does not explain how they got to this point. This leads to a queasy and unspoken implication that maybe all the elitist critics were right.
Maybe the poor were a lower breed, unable to rise from the muck. Maybe they are lazy, ingrown hicks. This is nonsense, of course. The structural disadvantages faced by the poor were built into the American system from the beginning, when democracy meant that everyone had a say, as long as that person was a white, landowning male. Many of the brave pioneers we still extol ended up as squatters on the land they secured at the risk of their lives. They often lost everything to people who never risked more than capital. The losses suffered by the Indians belongs in a different category altogether.
The real winners of the west were the bankers and lawyers, the investors and speculators, and the crooked politicians who helped partition huge swaths of public land for the private benefit of the few. With that said, Isenberg makes a powerful statement about giving poor whites their due, not just historically but today.
From the beginning, they have existed in the minds of rural or urban elites and the middle class as extrusions of the weedy, unproductive soil. They are depicted as slothful, rootless vagrants, physically scarred by their poverty. The worst ate clay and turned yellow, wallowed in mud and muck, and their necks became burned by the hot sun. Their poorly clothed, poorly fed children generated what others believed to be a permanent and defective breed…We think of the left-behind groups as extinct, and the present as a time of advanced thought and sensibility.
Any book that dares take on American foundational myths is bound to stir up passions. White Trash might make you angry. It might make a lot of people angry. Frankly, this is a book I grappled with. I even took down some notes as I read it, as though I were having a dialogue. This is a discussion that needs to be had. This is, in fact, an important book for understanding what is happening today, all around us. Reviewer's note: I received a copy of White Trash from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review View all 7 comments.
Jul 29, Jim Marshall rated it it was amazing. While reading this extraordinary history of the white underclass in America, I was reminded of how much of my life was spent in and around house trailers. My mom and dad brought me home to such a trailer when I was born. Almost all of my While reading this extraordinary history of the white underclass in America, I was reminded of how much of my life was spent in and around house trailers. Almost all of my cousins lived in trailers until they left home. All of my grandparents lived in trailers when they left their small Missouri farms or their small Chicago apartments.
It made it possible for me to graduate debt free in spite of my working class origins. It was just how things were. Historian Nancy Isenberg tells the year-long story of social class in America, especially the white social class that we never read about in high school. We heard about the founding of Jamestown, for instance, but we never learned that most of those people brought here in the 17th century were not adventurously seeking a newer world. They were criminals and vagrants, unemployed and often-homeless people rounded up from London and elsewhere in order to get rid of them.
To be lower class in rural America was to be one of the landless. They disappeared into unsettled territory and squatted down anywhere and everywhere. But mostly they were without land, and thus without economic security or political agency. And that was most of white men, all of their wives, and all of their children. Almost all of those who fought in the Civil War never had a say in whether it would or would not be fought. Teddy never got over that, which may partially explain his extraordinary eagerness to go to war.
In the south, no landowners were required to fight, or even to pay for a substitute. White landless men, who had absolutely no stake in the outcome, were drafted and killed in large numbers. Gentlemen plantation owners, meanwhile, could serve as officers if they chose. After all, they had something to lose. Those mostly in the direct line of fire were working class men and women, without college educations, without financial resources, without political power. I want to make a turn here, because this history of social class is so relevant to what is happening right now.
Vance, a Yale law school graduate, recalls growing up in poor white southern Ohio. Heroin addiction is rampant. In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes. And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.
The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades. From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues, a la Thomas Frank. Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth, the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis.
More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother. He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas. His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground. By hardwiring wealth and social class into our constitution, our educational system, and our cultural assumptions, we have ourselves created a moment of serious crisis.
View all 21 comments. Jul 18, Catherine rated it liked it Shelves: colonialism , work , england , mainstream-us , class , rural , history , Of the good: Isenberg argues that we do not give the history of poor whites nearly the due it deserves, and makes a striking claim for the centrality of that history to any understanding of the United States.
It's a provocative position, and one that she makes good with - following her train of thought from the colonial period to the present day, it's clear that we are a nation obsessed with class distinctions, peddling a mythology of the exact opposite. Of the not-so good: Isenberg does not give Of the good: Isenberg argues that we do not give the history of poor whites nearly the due it deserves, and makes a striking claim for the centrality of that history to any understanding of the United States.
Of the not-so good: Isenberg does not give us the voices of the poor in this text. Instead we read what middle- and upper-class people think about class and poverty. That's important, particularly as few poor people had access to power and few poor people were setting policies; we need to understand the mental gymnastics of politicians and cultural thinkers on this subject.
But it is a decided oddity that the poor themselves are never asked what they think or what they want, and leaves the reader with the impression that the poor have no needs or solutions they can articulate. I find that hard to believe. In addition, there's a lot missing from this book. Isenberg skips over immigration practices in the north during the 19th century; she skips World War II; she skips over the George W. Bush presidency. There's no mention of child labor, or of reform efforts to change that practice, limit the workday, or allow people to unionize.
Surely these, too, are to do with class? And race is not recognized as the bedfellow of class in nearly enough instances - practices like the widespread lynching of African American men by whites including working and poor whites are not mentioned. That seems a strange omission. I enjoyed the book and I learned a great deal. But I'm ready for the books that come after this one, in which Isenberg's omissions become the stuff of continuing conversation.
Jan 22, J. Sutton rated it really liked it. This was a fascinating history from beginning to end, maybe more so because this history has not entirely played out. This bottom rung of American society has variously been denigrated as waste people, offals, lubbers, clay eaters, rednecks, hillbillies and perhaps most famously, white trash.
The examination of white This was a fascinating history from beginning to end, maybe more so because this history has not entirely played out. View 1 comment. Jun 18, Jeanette rated it it was ok. It's written poorly, first of all. It could easily have been edited to half of its size for the pure information it contained in total. It's verbose and with immense repetition of basically what is a colonist theory detailing to origins of present class barriers in the USA.
As if the point that there ARE definitive class bars and levels within the USA and that it is not a classless society just because it is a republic is some kind of epiphany. It's hard for me to imagine an 2. It's hard for me to imagine an intelligent observation of the opposite assumption. Not just in the USA either. In any society and culture there are class recognition criteria.
And in most they are immense to association and to ultimate work, as well. It's too bad that it was not organized better. And that the title was not more accurate too. This has been "untold" before now? The only thing she changes in the telling are some of the connotations for her and other groups she "knows" definitions of "Trash". Nevertheless, the entire "victim" designation she entails in the predetermination of such inadequacies "always being with us"- is problematic. Because I see exceptions of change continually. Oddly, that rather undercuts many of her majority assumptions to others' evaluations of worth.
Affirmative action alone has given the very poorest a larger advantage to access the highest educational costs, for instance. For 50 years this has been absolutely true in my state. If you visit the top rated universities in the USA, the Middle class American background is the class most often missing of representation. Also, IMHO, the balance of origins how they got here, where they came from is too heavy in her definitions of that class as it exists now, while the balance of family systems and support throughout migrations and changes for work access in the last years is way too light. View all 31 comments.
Jul 06, Shauna Howard rated it it was amazing. This book could easily be the only American history book that one would need to read to gain a greater understanding on the socio-economic problems in America. I'm not sure how I found it, but this book is one of the most informative books that I will probably read this year.
View all 3 comments. Aug 05, Maria rated it it was ok. Nancy Isenberg's tome on the history of poor whites in America is expansive and thorough. Starting with the earliest colonists and progressing to modern day America, she illuminates the somewhat hidden history of poor white families in their many incarnations over the past four centuries.
Spoiler alert: rich white men have always hated poor white men only slightly less than they hate brown people. While I must respect the research and effort that went into this volume, I admit that it was very ha Nancy Isenberg's tome on the history of poor whites in America is expansive and thorough. While I must respect the research and effort that went into this volume, I admit that it was very hard to read at times. Isenberg doesn't have the skill of, say, Jill Lepore or James Loewen, when it comes to making potentially dry history more palatable, but there were still plenty of interesting anecdotes and explorations to keep me going until the end.
She spent far too much time in the colonial era and not nearly enough time in the most recent years. She could have written an entire book about Civil War-era class conflict and manipulation, and I would have gladly traded most of the discussion about pre-colonial Jamestown society for more investigation of poor whites immediately before, during, and immediately after the Civil War.
Additionally, I found her discussion of Elvis and his lasting influence on Bill Clinton interesting, as well as her ruminations on "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" and Sarah Palin, but felt that she missed something by not even mentioning the runaway popularity of Eminem, who has much more in common with Elvis that he'd perhaps like to admit.
All in all I'm glad I read it, and I may mine the bibliography for further, more focused reading, but I'll have a hard time recommending this to all but the most serious nonfiction readers. Much has been said about the subject of slavery in America, mostly focusing on black slavery, conjuring up images of powerless people being shipped over in horrific conditions.
Most people in the world regard it as a vile chapter in history, and a part of history that disgraced Americans and Brits as well. A few quotes from the book to set the tone and wet the appetite: view spoiler [America was conceived of in paradoxical terms: at once a land of fertility and possibility and a place of outstan Much has been said about the subject of slavery in America, mostly focusing on black slavery, conjuring up images of powerless people being shipped over in horrific conditions.
Those sent on the hazardous voyage to America who survived presented a simple purpose for imperial profiteers: to serve English interests and perish in the process. Dozens who disembarked from the Mayflower succumbed that first year to starvation and disease linked to vitamin deficiency; scurvy rotted their gums, and they bled from different orifices. In their number were plenty of poor boys, meant for exploitation.
The elites owned Indian and African slaves, but the population they most exploited were their child laborers. Even the church reflected class relations: designated seating affirmed class station. Either nature would reduce the burden of the poor through food shortages, starvation, and disease, or, drawn into crime, they might end up on the gallows. Finally, some would be impressed by force or lured by bounties to fight and die in foreign wars, or else be shipped off to the colonies.
Once there, it was hoped, the drones would be energized as worker bees. The bee was the favorite insect of the English, a creature seen as chaste but, more important, highly productive hide spoiler ] view spoiler [To put class back into the story where it belongs, we have to imagine a very different kind of landscape. Not a land of equal opportunity, but a much less appealing terrain where death and harsh labor conditions awaited most migrants.
A firmly entrenched British ideology justified rigid class stations with no promise of social mobility. Certainly, Puritan religious faith did not displace class hierarchy either; the early generations of New Englanders did nothing to diminish, let alone condemn, the routine reliance on servants or slaves. Land was the principal source of wealth, and those without any had little chance to escape servitude.
It was the stigma of landlessness that would leave its mark on white trash from this day forward. Not surprisingly, then, with their value calculated in tobacco, women in Virginia were treated as fertile commodities. The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? The holier-than-thou blanket over white history is ripped off the sugar-coated layer of lies, by approaching the history strictly from the class angel.
All men are created equal - only if you were a white male and owned land. This book chronicles the history of the angry people, and is written for the benefit of the working classes. It brings a different focus to history and make people think. This book reminds me of the mobilizing of the masses to instigate a revolution.
The French reacted to their oppression through the teachings of Jean Jacques Rousseau; the Caribbean islands responded by instigating their own revolution based on the French Revolutionary slogan : liberty, equality and fraternity. Americans fought each other in the civil war as a result of this revolt washing over the American shores. The English fueled the wrath of the disenfranchised in America when American leaders from the privileged classes decided to throw the English out.
By mobilizing the lower classes against their American upper classes, was an effort by the English to divide and conquer. America was based on a rigid class system with lots of evidence provided in the book , established by the English, and there was enough discontent in the enslaved lower classes to overturn America's intentions of hosting the Boston Tea Party and oust the Brits. A common concept in revolutionary thought is that no working class can play a revolutionary role in society while the majority of its members desire to improve their situation individually , within the framework of the existing society, by leaving the ranks of their class.
This truth is reinforced when the collective working class called the proletariat in Communism circles does not recognize itself as a stable social class with its own group interests and its own value system in conflict with those of the existing social order. The impulse toward a total transformation of society does not arise easily in a community of immigrants who have just changed their social and political status and who are still hoping to improve their conditions through social mobility. To succeed with a revolution, it is necessary to inspire individuals enough to group themselves together into a movement with a common goal.
So, depending on where you stand, and from which angle you approach history, you will learn many new facts about American history by reading this book, regardless of your agreeing or disagreeing with the approach. In the book a picture is drawn of how a strong middle class was formed to protect the small upper classes at the one pole, from the white trash lower classes at the other pole in previous centuries. Keeping a middle class strong, and concentrating on the development of the needs of individuals, a rigid class system could work its magic.
It worked for America for many generations through several centuries. As long as the hierarchy of classes can be maintained, a safety net protected those in power currently the economic players. There are numerous interesting historical facts provided in the book, spread over the history of the individual states. Truth be told, class wars and class distinctions have been with mankind since the first breath of air filled the first lungs of the first human being. Everybody knows that since we live it every day of our little mundane lives. There was even a strict class system in the Bible stories about the Jewish population.
The Old Testament was more or less one big war, in which cruelty reigned supreme and groups were used against each other. The enslavement of people were and are universal in many countries. Enslavement have different faces and are expressed in different concepts. It can be physical, economically, financially or socially. It can be mentally or ideologically.
There are always individuals or groups who can be enslaved. For other ethnic groups, reading this book, a new window will open on the origins of white slavery. They were the first ones to populate America. The other slaves came in later. So in this sense it is an eye-opening book on how similar people from different racial origins were treated. They have a lot more in common than distinguish them! How they ended up now in is even a bigger point of interest. There are literary millions of books, reports, documentaries, and political pipe dreams published around this topic and how it is playing itself out in American society.
This book does not rock the boat, really, but it is a different approach. I was wondering who the target audience for this book is. It certainly cannot be the people who are the center of this book, since they either do not have access to education, can hardly read, or don't find this type of academic approach to their lives interesting. Perhaps they even gave up on trying to be understood or heard or believed. However, the original ethnic and social attitudes still flourish under a layer of soft-soaping. The role of eugenics is discussed in useful detail.
In cold hard facts the plight of the poor and forgotten in America can be compared to other countries, and the conclusion will still be that the USA is currently the most developed, most prosperous country for working class people in the world but for how long? It is also the country with the biggest middle class. There simply is no comparison. In fact, current trends in the world is to follow in America's footsteps, by countries such as China and Russia, as well as India, to name just a few, to develop similar middle classes and ensure upwards mobility for poorer people.
The reason behind it, as was the thinking in America in previous centuries, is to bring stability and security to as many people as possible to prevent unrest and revolution. The middle classes becomes a strong and secure buffer zone between the haves and have nots. Historian Nancy Isenberg tells the year-long story of social class in America in a no-nonsense tone and summarize a history in eye-opening detail. All the facts in one place, sort of, and written in such a way that as much information is included as possible.
There was a lot of word dumping taking place with a lot of repetitions, which made it boring for about pages. But for an outsider like me, it was interesting to read. The modus operandi of the British Empire all over the world, was the same and while reading the book I was wondering if the American readers realize how much they have in common with the rest of the world.
I'm sure they don't. If Americans thought they were a classless society, they would be surprised to learn that they're not. And what people always wanted to believe about their own family's founding forefathers, were not the truth at all. It's kind of a shocker, when thought about it this way. So what was the purpose of the book? If a revolution in America can be set alight, in which a civil war ensues, Americans fighting and killing each other, the fight against the rest of the world cannot be won by the Americans.
All it takes is to group as many angry people as possible together and give them a common goal. But is that really groundbreaking news? By reading this book, the reader might gain insight into why The Trump won this election. Even if it makes you angry, you will at least now have to accept the reality of people who used the opportunity to make themselves heard when nobody else saw it coming. And you might want to reconsider insulting his followers. Fuel on the fires. All it needs is a little breeze One of the aspects of these past elections that stood out to me, was how the people were treated who voiced a different opinion of the one expected of them.
It was obvious that a silent group of people preferred to rather keep quiet, avoid being insulted, and just vote for what they believed should be done. A quiet revolution was taking place. How it's going to play out is of course still veiled in darkness, but a new era might come in America if Mr.
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Trump is allowed to remain in office, or even alive! The book has a catchy title, insulting in many ways to millions of people, and it was published in the tumultuous election period. In retrospect it explains a lot to those who did not know, or did not care enough to find out what really happened. My question is: what will the American readers do after reading this book? How will it influence their decisions? And was it worth it? I'm not sure if it will be interesting enough to fiction readers.
But for non-fiction readers it's a good choice. Believe me, you won't want to boast about your ancestors anymore, no matter if they arrived on the Mayflower or not. Consider watching some of these Youtube documentaries after reading the book. Ranting and raving against those who thought different, clearly shows a lack of respect for other people; do not accept democracy; and don't accept equality in any shape or form no matter what they claim as their believes.
Fables We Forget By - White Trash: The Year Untold History of Class in America
View all 27 comments. Apr 29, Jan Rice rated it liked it Shelves: history , audio , politics , them-and-us , economics , sociology. I have thought of the problem of confining people in classes, castes and races as roughly analogous to curtailing the varieties of seeds and plants: you never know which ones will grow and thrive in the changing environment and which will now fail. If you've suppressed or gotten rid of all but the few that do well in the immediate situation, what will happen when things change and the only ones now available aren't suited to survive? America is a case in point.
Everyone knows we were started by I have thought of the problem of confining people in classes, castes and races as roughly analogous to curtailing the varieties of seeds and plants: you never know which ones will grow and thrive in the changing environment and which will now fail.
Everyone knows we were started by a bunch of debtors and misfits and people who were starving or who wanted to escape persecution, people for whom necessity was the mother of invention. They wanted a better chance and had the gumption to know it. And look! From that flotsam and jetsam, politicians and scholars and artists and writers and all sorts of thinkers and doers have arisen.
As each new group made it into the light of day, there arose waves of individuals who contributed to the blossoming renaissance.
Magnet American White Trash By M L Becker
That's what can happen when people are not kept down or confined in rigid classes or castes. Or so I thought. Isenberg's thesis is that there has always been a class divide in society, that class in America has not been limited to race, as we are conditioned to think here in America. Further, America was a dumping ground for England's undesirables, or waste people.
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These never had a chance, were never given a chance, but are kept down just as black people have been kept down. As a matter of fact, because of their sallow or burnt complexion and gaunt, unhealthy physiques--from malnutrition and overwork--they have long been considered genetically, not simply sociologically, inferior, an all-round bad breed. This is important stuff. Unfortunately, though, what we get from this author rather than a clearly delineated picture of what happened and the historical context out of which it emerged is "proof" by many quotations, adding up to a litany of ugly characterizations over the decades and centuries.
To those quotations is added a close examination of all the names by which these left-behinds were known geographically and historically. There is a smattering of context and explanation, but it tends to be widely scattered and hard to assimilate. At the beginning of the book, as the quotations from famous or representative Europeans and Americans of the seventeenth and eighteenth century piled up, I was still able to give the quotes some context, having been reading history and Western civilization lately.
Then, in the middle of the book, the hitherto constant refrain subsided to a degree, only to tune up again big time toward the end. I had to let the din die down for several days and then reread, gathering my wits before reviewing. All the loaded quotes and naming is almost prurient. The ugly repetition tends to undercut the author's disapproval of the racism about which she's writing, almost as though she were getting off on it.
I do say racism , not classism. Racism is the general term and, I think, fits here, considering the emphasis on breeding and supposed biologically determined characteristics and inferior quality. The comparison was to animal husbandry; you had to keep the breed pure, avoiding contamination by the inferior breeds and breeding out inferior cases.
All this reminds me of a term I heard from a doctor--a psychiatrist--back in the '80s: piss-poor protoplasm. I knew that in Britain the lower classes were long considered a breed apart, but in America the focus on race serves to blind us to class. But the author's method of stringing together quotes and pejorative names within a historical and geographical framework does not do justice to the case she presumably wants to make. It weakens her case, as though she has nothing, or little.
Tell us how the situation came to be, already! Please do the hard work of thinking it out and writing it down, and don't rely so much on letting multiple quotes speak for you! I am being hard on the author since I had high expectations for the book and was disappointed. To be fair, the author has a difficult job. She's trying to cut across that. Maybe she's still trying to convince herself that she's seeing what she thinks she's seeing. And she does provide us glimmers, off and on. The surplus people of England were dumped here to rid the old country of them and try and put them to good use--meaning remunerative use and also to do something with land perceived as empty, wild, and unused.
I thought of the idea of "wilderness" in the Hebrew bible: everything that is outside and the opposite of civilization. In America we're conditioned to think of So I can begin to see what the author is getting at regarding wasteland. In feudal times, power and wealth that now comes from money used to come from land. The nobility, aristocrats, or landed gentry had large tracts of land on which serfs, and later share-cropping peasants, toiled, and the landowners' wealth came from what that land produced.
From the picture the author is painting, wealth and power apparently were conceived that way in the new world as well. But by the time America was being settled by Europeans, the industrial revolution was already getting started in England, which is where it began. Isn't that the reason there were so many surplus "waste" people at that particular time? Yes, the poor are always with us, but as the industrial revolution cranked up, it upended established ways of life, uprooting people and sometimes also creating the wherewithal to have more children earlier, while not yet having developed the resources to incorporate the burgeoning masses.
There was a lot of what we'd now call blaming the victim. Society was deathly afraid of idlers and vagrants, and if there were hoards of them, and if they were unruly or revolutionary, that fear makes some sense. There were too many of these poor; they were expendable; they could be shuttled off to new lands where the "waste" people could become useful as "fertilizer. Therefore they failed, and were considered lazy in comparison to Scottish Highlanders or German settlers who came prepared for the vicissitudes of subsistence farming--people from countries that so far were less industrialized.
Maybe also the idea that people should be farmers on the land is already reflecting the romantic reaction against industrialization, but even if so, it fit the economic aims of the elite class, and with the notions of cultivated land as good land, an economy with land as central, agriculture as the way to fix surplus people into a yeoman class between the aristocrats and the slaves, and, last but not least, settlers to nail down the land. There was no way free small farmers could compete with plantations running on slave labor, though, and greater efficiency soon enabled the would-be aristocrats to dominate the economy through wealth and power, creating even more waste people.
The poor gravitated to the poorest land. Even as waste people accumulated and were shunted westward, there was already the fear of inseminating new areas with degenerate and inferior people. But the poor can't always be shipped out.
Isenberg referred to "poor badges," and at first I couldn't tell whether she meant actual badges for beggars or whether she was speaking metaphorically of distinguishing features of the poor. Wikipedia says there really were poor badges in late medieval and early modern times to control who could beg and live an itinerant life, and it seems such badges showed up in the new world, too. The need for badges brings me to another of Isenberg's major theses: that society wants class distinctions and resists "leveling.
The medieval ideal of 'a place for everything i. Isenberg has Thomas Jefferson selling Europe on America as a classless society in response to defamatory European ideas about America.
The idea is that it is not being different that causes a backlash, it's getting out of your place. Differences among groups and classes are seemly. Freedom may be tolerable but is best achieved within one's appropriate station. Intellect and ability should match--should be made to match--that station. Limiting the availability of education and attaching the vote to property ownership are ways social mobility has been curtailed. The threat to the existing order comes when differences and distinctions erode, in other words, when people are seen as getting uppity.
There is resistance to this way of thinking, and there are vested interests in our current focus on race to the exclusion of class. I've already seen a professional review that chides the author for omitting race from her book. She doesn't; it's just that she's taken a different angle and written a different book.
I will tell you that it's easier for a group to focus on its problem with race than on who, more generally speaking, it welcomes. When the group chooses to racialize its focus in that way, it can get kudos from the political left, all the while remaining willfully blind to its own internal class system. Can it be that something like that, albeit not just with race, is what has happened in America at large and has led to the result of our presidential election?
Class, caste, and race may be the ultimate representation of polarization in society. I'm hypothesizing that, not Isenberg. I used to think that social ills and dilemmas emerged from problem segments of society--from black America and from the west--California--or so I would think. Of course that's where problems emerged!
We had kept black people down and shuttled waste people west--"our" kind of people seeing ourselves as entitled to the roles we play and outsourcing all the problem traits traits we prefer to disown --but the problems boomerang and come home to haunt. Nancy Isenberg floats the idea that the poor white class was installed between the landowners and the expanding population of slaves to cushion the elites from the eventual wrath of the slaves. The only thing good about being part of that barrier class was in being made to be above the black people.
However that worked or works, the two lower classes were being played against each other. Toward the end of the book, the author comes out with the old saw that the poor whites vote against their own class interests. Where do their interests lie, then? Surely not with the educated class that has kept them down and that plays them against another class to save their own skins?
And that, to save their own skins, currently has them taking the fall. The book so emphasizes the unpleasant characteristics both of the poor and of the elites who put them in their place and keep them there that the term muckraking comes to mind. I didn't mind the blunt title since it's an attention-getter.
If that would shift the paradigm it might be worth it, but I think not. In the book, the author described a racial etiquette between poor whites and black people that once or still? The terms, in effect, were equivalent. Why then do I feel one term would be appropriate as a book title and the other not?
Here's the answer as I've discerned it so far: There is a power component to morality. We have a tendency to behave better toward those whom we think have some power over us--and if not those people themselves, then the expectations of some others whose opinions we value and whose judgments concern us. Here is a definition of power: Power is the ability to make others listen to one's story. With even greater power comes the ability to make others conform to one's story.
View all 20 comments. Jun 27, Clif Hostetler rated it liked it Shelves: history. This is a history focused on the permanent underclass of a theoretically classless society. The United States aspires to live by its founding declaration that, "all men are created equal. After all I presume readers of my reviews are polite company, and the term "white trash" is This is a history focused on the permanent underclass of a theoretically classless society. After all I presume readers of my reviews are polite company, and the term "white trash" is one I prefer not to use among polite company.
First of all I want to clarify that this book is a scholarly historical study and not a torrid romance novel there are some with that title. Second, a term that includes "white" is not necessarily excluding "non-whites" from the classification of poor or underclass. The following quotation from the book is the author's attempt to reframe the relationship of race and class: 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. Furthermore, I suspect that it may have been the publisher that suggested the use of this title. It is an attention grabber and probably sells more books than the more descriptive subtitle. Also this book is addressing a common human tendency to look down on the other. The label used isn't as important as conveying the sense of judgment and hatred toward others perceived to be of a lesser class.
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.
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It is not an insignificant part of the vast nation demographic today. The puzzle of how white trash embodied this tension is one of the key questions the book presumes to answer. Any reader with ancestors who lived in the United States can probably find them being insulted with a derogatory name at some point in this history. The book begins with colonial times and progresses through American history and along the way repeats about every possible derogatory expression that's ever been documented to have been used. One term that I don't recall hearing before was "mudsill.
The north's favorite term for southerners apparently was "crackers. The author observes that economic rules throughout history, from the slave era through to current bank and tax policies, seem to consistently harm the working poor. It's also observed that from the New Deal to Obamacare there's always a "backlash that occurs when attempts are made to improve the conditions of the poor. Tennessee Valley Authority and Work Projects Administration of the FDR era have themselves become dedicated to making sure that hard earned taxpayer money is not wasted on poor people.
Undermine whose American dream? Commentary about present conditions and suggestions for changes to improve the chances for upward mobility are confined to the Epilogue. The suggestions are quite subtile such as the following which perhaps can be summarized as a suggestion that America should become more like Sweden. We have always relied—and still do—on bloodlines to maintain and pass on a class advantage to our children. On average, Americans pass on 50 percent of their wealth to their children; in Nordic countries, social mobility is much higher; parents in Denmark give 15 percent of their total wealth to their children, and in Sweden parents give 27 percent.
Class wealth and privileges are a more important inheritance as a measure of potential than actual genetic traits. I have hidden my own commentary regarding the above quotation within in this view spoiler [ I find the above statistics to be unclear. They make it appear that Americans on average give away half their wealth at death to places other than their children, and the Danish give away 85 percent. I doubt that to be the case. It may be that the above statistics are referring to inherited wealth as a proportion of total wealth.
But I can't tell from the text in the book nor from the referenced sources indicated. The following block quotation are the sources indicated in the Notes section for the source of these statistics.
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Since I'm not a registered user of literature search resources at a research library and I'm too lazy to go to the public library and use their resources I have not read the following sources. If anybody who reads this is able to clarify the meaning of these statistics, please pass the information on to me.
It's a touchy situation because it seems that everybody wants to be included in the category of middle class even when statistically that particular group is becoming a smaller percentage and increasingly segregated from lower and higher income neighbors. Below are two links regarding this subject. View all 15 comments. Oct 15, Nancy Oakes rated it really liked it. I was on the edge of buying this book when I got the email, so thanks very, very much. I don't think you can read this book in that amount of time since there's a wealth of information to sift through here.
There is a more expanded version of this post at my reading journal, so feel free to go long or to take the sho actually, like a 3. There is a more expanded version of this post at my reading journal, so feel free to go long or to take the short road. This is certainly one of the most informative books American history books I've read this year; quite frankly it was an eye opener. If someone had told me that Thomas Jefferson referred to the white underclass of his own time as "rubbish" I probably wouldn't have believed it, since he's revered as a founding father of this nation.
But he actually did use that label, and he wasn't the only founding father or American politician to use that sort of term to describe the "wretched and landless poor" that have been part of our history and our culture since this country began. And that's just for starters. But that's the point here -- as the dustjacket blurb reveals, the author "explodes our comforting myths about equality in the land of opportunity, uncovering the crucial legacy of the ever-present poor white trash.
As the dustjacket blurb notes, "white trash have always been near the center of major debates over the character of the American identity," and here she examines just how this has been the case over the last four hundred years. She does this by careful examination and analysis of several sources in contemporary politics, literature, scientific theory and various policies at different moments of America's history. I will say that while it was very informative and I found myself going long stretches of time without being able to put the book down.
This isn't a pop history for the masses sort of thing, and I would find myself repeatedly going to the back to read her notes, iPad at the ready. I also happen to agree with many of the major points she makes here, most especially her statement that "We are a country that imagines itself as democratic, and yet the majority has never cared much for equality Heirs, pedigree, lineage: a pseudo-aristocracy of wealth still finds a way to assert its social power.
As fascinated as I was with much of what she has to say here, I do have some issues. My biggest problem here is when she says that "class has its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from intersection with race. Second, I didn't find the book to be an actual "year" history per se, since a large part of her focus is on the South at the expense of understanding the history of the poor white class in other regions in this country. It's tough to be fully comprehensive when writing a history spanning so much time, and given how intensely she makes her case for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, aside from a brief discussion dealing with a few modern presidents, a bit on the eugenics movement, and "white trash" in books and on television, there is little depth of discussion regarding the white underclass in the twentieth century.
Regardless of its flaws, though, I would certainly recommend it because it is a valuable study that really does debunk some of the myths about the idealized conception of white equality in America as well as the reality behind the American dream itself. View all 4 comments. Recommended to Paula by: Will Byrnes. Shelves: non-fiction , published , audio-book , history , read-in White Trash by Nancy Isenberg is quite an eye opener.
This is a year US history lesson that states class has been with us since the Mayflower landed. I thought the British sent all their convicts to Australia to colonize, but I had little clue that the same happened in America. Though the names given to the white and landless poor have differed over the years, they have always White Trash by Nancy Isenberg is quite an eye opener. Though the names given to the white and landless poor have differed over the years, they have always been there and the politians made sure they stayed there.
Basically, America is not and has never been a class free society. There is a lot of good history presented here and one I was glad to read for the eye opening education. However, the book is long 15 hours on audiobook and I did start skimming a bit in the middle. Some repetition here and there. Would I recommend White Trash to readers? Only to those that are into nonfiction and US history.
View all 6 comments. Aug 10, Leo Walsh rated it really liked it. We American fancy ourselves classless. We tell ourselves that with hard work, anyone can succeed -- like the runaway waif Ben Franklin. And while we admit that America began as a slave state, we often think that white supremacy is a thing of the past. And that African-Americans can achieve anything they want Nancy Isenberg deconstructs this myth in her excellent history, "White Trash.
But instead of focusing on the African-American population -- I've read many an excellent history of slavery and the civil rights struggle -- she focuses on poor, rural whites, another underclass. Unlike the slaves and their descendants, these people -- who've gone by nicknames like "white trash," "red neck," "cracker," "Hoosier," etc. These people are less visible than poor African Americans since they live in rural and suburban enclaves, especially low-rent trailer parks. But they are more numerous. And just a beat-down.
White trash were, for instance, more targeted than African-Americans during the Eugenics craze in the late 19th and early 20th century. Often simple farmers forced by shady land speculators onto marginal land, they lived lives of abject poverty. Stories of unity tamp down our discontents and mask even our most palpable divisions. And when these divisions are class based, as they almost always are, a pronounced form of amnesia sets in. Americans do not like to talk about class. It is not supposed to be important in our history.
It is not who we are. Instead, we have the Pilgrims a people who are celebrated at Thanksgiving, a holiday that did not exist until the Civil War , who came ashore at Plymouth Rock a place only designated as such in the late eighteenth century. The quintessential American holiday was associated with the native turkey to help promote the struggling poultry industry during the Civil War.
The master of ceremonies was their Indian interpreter, Squanto, who had helped the English survive a difficult winter. Coerced labor of this kind reminds us of how the majority of white servants came to America. This brave girl has fascinated poets, playwrights, artists, and filmmakers. The best-known, most recent version of the story is the Walt Disney animated film. Communing with nature draws upon the potent romantic image of the New World as a prelapsarian classless society. Old tropes meld seamlessly with new cinematic forms: women in Western culture have been consistently portrayed as closer to Mother Nature, lushness and abundance, Edenic tranquility and fertility.
There is no rancid swamp, no foul diseases and starvation, in this Jamestown re-creation. Smith was a military adventurer, a self-promoter, a commoner, who had the annoying habit of exaggerating his exploits. His rescue story perfectly mimicked a popular Scottish ballad of the day in which the beautiful daughter of a Turkish prince rescues an English adventurer who is about to lose his head.
Even Rolfe considered the union a convenient political alliance rather than a love match. We should not expect Disney to get that right when the fundamental principle of the classless American identity—sympathetic communion—is at stake. Exaggerating her beauty and highlighting her choice to save Smith and become an ally of the English is not new. Her Anglicized beauty is nonnegotiable; her primitive elegance makes her assimilation tolerable.
Indeed, it is all that makes acceptance of the Indian maiden possible. The Pocahontas story requires the princess to reject her own people and culture. Yet this young girl did not willingly live at Jamestown; she was taken captive. In the garden paradise of early Virginia that never was, war and suffering, greed and colonial conquest are conveniently missing. Class and cultural dissonance magically fade from view in order to remake American origins into a utopian love story.
Can we handle the truth? Those sent on the hazardous voyage to America who survived presented a simple purpose for imperial profiteers: to serve English interests and perish in the process. In their number were plenty of poor boys, meant for exploitation. The elites owned Indian and African slaves, but the population they most exploited were their child laborers. Even the church reflected class relations: designated seating affirmed class station. Virginia was even less a place of hope. All that these idle men understood was a cruel discipline when it was imposed upon them in the manner of the mercenary John Smith, and the last thing they wanted was to work to improve the land.
The investment was not in people, whose already unrefined habits declined over time, whose rudeness magnified in relation to their brutal encounters with Indians. The colonists were meant to find gold, and to line the pockets of the investor class back in England. The people sent to accomplish this task were by definition expendable. So now we know what happens to our colonial history. It is whitewashed. These inheritors founded the first genealogical societies in the s, and by the turn of the twentieth century patriotic organizations with an emphasis on hereditary descent, such as the General Society of Mayflower Descendants and the Order of the Founders and Patriots of America, boasted chapters across the nation.
The highly exclusive Order of the First Families of Virginia was established in , its members claiming that their lineage could be traced back to English lords and Lady Rebecca Rolfe—whom we all know as the ennobled and Anglicized Pocahontas. Statues are the companions of elite societies in celebrating paternal lineage and a new aristocracy. They tell us that some families and some classes have a greater claim as heirs of the founding promise.
Municipal and state leaders have supported the national hagiography in bold form by constructing grand monuments to our colonial city fathers. The version of John Winthrop that the Revolutionary John Adams had favored, dressed in Shakespearean or Tudor-Stuart attire and with an ornate ruff collar and hose, first graced the Back Bay of Boston in But the largest such memorial is the twenty-seven-ton statue of William Penn perched atop City Hall in Philadelphia.
Land itself was a source of civic identity. Commemoration of this kind begs the following questions: Who were the winners and losers in the great game of colonial conquest? Beyond parceling the land, how were estates bounded, fortunes made, and labor secured? What social structures, what manner of social relationships did the first European Americans really set in motion? Finding answers to these questions will enable us to fully appreciate how long-ago-established identities of haves and have-nots left a permanent imprint on the collective American mind.
Ambitious-sounding plans for New World settlements were never more than ad hoc notions or overblown promotional tracts. The recruits for these projects did not necessarily share the beliefs of those principled leaders molded in bronze—the John Winthrops and William Penns—who are lionized for having projected the enlarged destinies of their respective colonies. The English subscribed to the idea that the poor dregs would be weeded out of English society in four ways.
Either nature would reduce the burden of the poor through food shortages, starvation, and disease, or, drawn into crime, they might end up on the gallows. Finally, some would be impressed by force or lured by bounties to fight and die in foreign wars, or else be shipped off to the colonies.
Once there, it was hoped, the drones would be energized as worker bees. The bee was the favorite insect of the English, a creature seen as chaste but, more important, highly productive. The colonists were a mixed lot. On the bottom of the heap were men and women of the poor and criminal classes. Among these unheroic transplants were roguish highwaymen, mean vagrants, Irish rebels, known whores, and an assortment of convicts shipped to the colonies for grand larceny or other property crimes, as a reprieve of sorts, to escape the gallows.
Not much better were those who filled the ranks of indentured servants, who ranged in class position from lowly street urchins to former artisans burdened with overwhelming debts. They had taken a chance in the colonies, having been impressed into service and then choosing exile over possible incarceration within the walls of an overcrowded, disease-ridden English prison. Large numbers of poor adults and fatherless boys gave up their freedom, selling themselves into indentured servitude, whereby their passage was paid in return for contracting to anywhere from four to nine years of labor.
Their contracts might be sold, and often were, upon their arrival. Unable to marry or choose another master, they could be punished or whipped at will. Discharged soldiers, also of the lower classes, were shipped off to the colonies. For a variety of reasons, single men and women, and families of the lower gentry, and those of artisan or yeoman classes joined the mass migratory swarm.
Some left their homes to evade debts that might well have landed them in prison; others a fair number coming from Germany and France viewed the colonies as an asylum from persecution for their religious faith; just as often, resettlement was their escape from economic restrictions imposed upon their trades. Still others ventured to America to leave tarnished reputations and economic failures behind.
As all students of history know, slaves eventually became one of the largest groups of unfree laborers, transported from Africa and the Caribbean, and from there to the mainland British American colonies. Their numbers grew to over six hundred thousand by the end of the eighteenth century. Africans were found in every colony, especially after the British government gave full encouragement to the slave trade when it granted an African monopoly to the Company of Royal Adventurers in The slave trade grew even faster after the monopoly ended, as the American colonists bargained for lower prices and purchased slaves directly from foreign vendors.
To put class back into the story where it belongs, we have to imagine a very different kind of landscape. Not a land of equal opportunity, but a much less appealing terrain where death and harsh labor conditions awaited most migrants. A firmly entrenched British ideology justified rigid class stations with no promise of social mobility. Certainly, Puritan religious faith did not displace class hierarchy either; the early generations of New Englanders did nothing to diminish, let alone condemn, the routine reliance on servants or slaves.
Land was the principal source of wealth, and those without any had little chance to escape servitude.