White Trash

White Trash

The 400-year Untold History of Class in America

Book - 2016
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In White Trash, Nancy Isenberg upends assumptions about America's supposedly class-free society and shows how poor whites have been deeply ingrained in the country's history for the past 400 years. They were central to the both the Civil War itself and the rise of the Republican Party, and still today feature in reality TV as entertainment. White trash have always been an integral part of the American identity, and here their history in both culture and politics in explored in depth. A fascinating work that's timely to today's public debate about rich and poor.
Publisher: New York, New York :, Viking,, [2016]
ISBN: 9780670785971
Branch Call Number: 305.50973 Isenberg 06/2016
Characteristics: xvii, 460 pages :,illustrations ;,25 cm


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May 25, 2019

The book isn't really about history, which explains the conditions and forces of social change, but only an angry rant about the so many bad things that happened in America. Gosh, I never knew . . . It's also not really about class. "White trash" is a vague cultural description and doesn't identify the economic class such folks, whoever they are, belong to. Class, in its scientific sense, is the relationship its members have to the means of production and distribution. Under feudalism a "middle class" of merchants, bankers and artisan/craftsmen developed with the spread and growth of trade. It was socially located in the middle between the upper class of aristocratic landlords and the lower class of their peasant tenants who worked the land. As the merchants' capital grew and invaded the manufacturing sector, it forced out the self-employed artisans and replaced them with non-owning, wage-earning workers laboring for the profit of the capitalist owners of industry. The same shift took place in agriculture. The ever-more powerful capitalist class eventually displaced the aristocracy as society's ruling class. While America began as an essentially middle-class nation of property-owning farmers, merchants, shopkeepers, etc. -- some rich, some poor, most in between -- industrialization and the competition from its capitalists dispossessed the middle class and these former owners became the working-class employees of the greatly enriched "robber barons." "Middle class" has mostly lived on as a myth in America, as the number of self-employed has shrunk to about 10% of the workforce. America today, as most countries, is essentially a nation of capitalist employers and working-class employees -- the 1% and the 99% (okay, the 90%). The glaring inequality we see today is the result of the entire product of labor going to capital in exchange for an ever decreasing relative wage. Understanding this basic definition of class is necessary so that the 90% can recognize their common interest and unite through union and political organization to reclaim the product of their collective labor -- the original promise of America, and a new revolutionary example for the world.

Jan 09, 2019

The book contains a wealth of information about the lower and neglected classes, particularly in Great Britain and the colonies during colonial times. For example, it notes characterizations and "solutions" offered by writers and dignitaries from privileged classes during times when the poor were desperately poor, poorly nourished, and cut off from any possibility of improving their status or indeed any aspect of their essentially condemned lives. The author cites evidence that a good many of the emigrants to these shores were simply scooped up as "waste people" and dumped in the New World, where they became known as "mudsills" and "clay-eaters" among other things. And there wasn't much in the way of a better life available over here. The book also contains information about life in the various colonies (and future states) that few if any of us learned during our school days (e.g., North Carolina and Georgia). Not to mention the attitudes of Ben Franklin and others.

As the narrative approaches more recent times, it becomes a bit more scattershot. The discussions of modern "hillbilly" or "redneck" figures such as Elvis, Jim and Tammy Baker, et al. could penetrate a good deal more fully. However, the author rallies pretty well in her wrap-up. As noted in another comment, the author thanks her editor for careful work. However, in this reader's view, the book would have benefited from more strenuous proofreading and from more attention to continuity. Still, it is quite a useful and, it is fair to say, a needed account of a neglected aspect of our history, and a good antidote to some of the over-hyped "hillbilly" literature one is likely to encounter these days.

Sep 06, 2018

In the preface she thanks her editor for making the book more reader friendly, I have to believe she simply took her class lecture notes and turned it into a book, this is a tough read, she could have easily said the same thing in a book half the size. We get it, early immigrants had it tough, everyone had it tough 200, 300, 400 years ago and more, just making it another day was an act of survival. but for all my negativity, this is an important book that should be read, and hopefully in schools. Today people have no idea what it was like even 100 years ago despite the fact they have a device in their hand that will tell them just about anything they want to know, in fact that is the problem, nobody wants them to know the real history, it has been re-written but sadly not any more accurate than what it replaced. So despite the shortcomings, this is an important book. One thing you may realize when you read this book, if you are lucky, we did not have a civil war 150 years ago, we have been fighting a civil war for over 500 years and it continues to this day. American Experiment my ass.

Jun 23, 2018

This book covers a lot of info, the classes created at the inception of immigrants in the US to present day. There is definitely a lot of name calling, history not in my consciousness. I found the beginning depressing and a slow slog. Things definitely pick up. I imagine there is much to find fault with depending on ones point of view. I'd recommend reading w/ an open mind! Learning could help our society. This author has done extensive research and connected many dots throughout history, good and bad as people, wealth, politics, power, greed, empathy, disease, education, war, opportunities.... come together in a "country of the free" that sometimes feels like the "caste" system in India. It's not an uplifting sort of book. It is a wonderful historical education about the "class" aspect of our country. The main focus is on white people but is intertwined w/ slavery and people of color to present day. If you want to focus on people of color, read "The Color of Law". Another eye opener of how people have been purposely denied inclusion into the middle class.

Mar 06, 2018

I think I have reserved this book. Correct?Is it on the hold shelf in the Francis branch library?

Jul 18, 2017

Well worth reading, "White Trash" explains much about American history that was left out of your high school courses. I felt that I got more of an idea about how the educated classes felt about the poor than I did about how they themselves felt. But this is likely a function of literacy. The upper classes had more opportunity to write about everything and thus leave historical documents. The section on the Civil War was especially revealing of how class and race conflicted regular people who had to choose a side. Among the more recent examples of lower class whites, the author includes Dolly Parton, the Bakers (Tammy Faye & Jim), LBJ and Elvis Presley. I missed some others she might have included: Loretta Lynn, Woody Guthrie, Willie Nelson. She mentions "Li'l Abner" without explaining that Al Capp, the creator, was a son of Jewish/Latvian immigrants from New York. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that current political strategies involve exploitation of these class and race differences in order to attempt to bamboozle the less educated once again.

Jul 13, 2017

Isenberg has some interesting information, but she twisted or omitted facts that didn't support the points she wanted to make. That is unsound scholarship.

Jun 26, 2017

Clearly this is a book that attracts an...interesting diversity of opinion. Even the professional critics are confused (see reviews above. My favourite is the one that complains that in a book about white people, in a chapter about white sharecroppers, there is little mention of black sharecroppers. WTF, NYT?) Poor, and perhaps narrow and bigoted white people are simply to be ignored and despised -- aren't they? As others have noted, the style and quality of writing in White Trash varies, from the scholarly to the personal, and often, the maddeningly repetitive. However, the author is a pioneer, who is also writing from the heart, and it seems to be necessary to be extremely clear, since the poor of all shades are still the political football they have always been. There is a lot of room for future authors to research this very broad and deep field.

May 15, 2017

White Trash is an excellent history of class in America, written by an academic historian. Her study focusses not on all poor people or the many immigrant groups who arrived, and who, by and large, succeeded economically, but on an old white underclass from the British Isles, a great many of whom still live in conditions that put the lie to the American Dream. In this thoroughly researched history, Isenberg shows that the earliest American colonies, Virginia and Plymouth, were founded on a class system, with the poor have limited rights and few opportunities for land ownership -- among the slaves in America's early days were numerous whites. Much of the westward push of settlers, was driven by these people looking for land, denied them by their "betters" (of course, resulting in genocidal war and land theft from the inhabitants). With copious references, Isenberg shows that in many ways, this underclass still exists near the bottom of the social order.

She explains that class tension in the USA, regularly arises in the political environment. Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Bill Clinton were among the few presidents who rose from the underclass. All were divisive leaders, hated by the upper classes and popular with the lower. Many of Andrew Jackson's supporters liked this brash, outspoken backwoodsman, and loved that his spoken English was unsophisticated. Speaking of Jackson in the 1820's, Isenberg says that he was portrayed "as an outsider, a man of natural talents…, who was capable of cleaning up the corruption in Washington. His nomination provoked 'sneers of derision from the myrmidons of power at Washington,' wrote one avid Jackson man, who decried the 'degeneracy of American feeling in that city.' Jackson wasn't a government minion or a pampered courtier, and thus his unpolished and unstatesmanlike ways were an advantage' (124)." The same words could have been written two centuries later, about Donald Trump though this book was completed before his election campaign.

White Trash isn't a page-turner, but is an important book for anyone interested in American culture, history or politics. Isenberg is a first-rate researcher, who has given considerable thought to her argument. She provides the evidence to allow us to follow the development of her thinking, so that we can understand how she reaches her conclusions. In so long and thorough a book, we can nitpick and find something we disagree with, but her basic point, that American (US) society always contained a despised underclass with limited opportunities, can't be refuted. The book is important to Canadians, not only in understanding our neighbour, but because we were settled under somewhat similar circumstances -- one of our first post-contact migrations was of Loyalists, refugees from the American Revolution -- and share many values with Americans. (If you don't believe that class is an issue in Canada, think of how you react to people saying either "to whom" or "Can yous come here?")

May 02, 2017

Don't mistake this for a history book just because it was written by a historian. She misuses and distorts history to support her political views. Instead of writing about the past in its own terms, she judges people and circumstances of the past in the light of her own politics. For example, she says Ben Franklin was not a self-made man because he rose by the support of influential patrons. But the 18th century was a traditional hierarchical society and that is how poor men rose in those days! Alexander Hamilton was a poor orphan working a company on a small Caribbean island and some businessmen sent him to New York because they felt he had potential. She says she is writing about "class" in America, but she ignores the millions immigrants from the original colonies and abroad who moved into the midwest and became independent farmers. And the inhabitants of the housing developments that grew up around American cities in the post world war II era? In the New York area at least they were inhabited by the children and grandchildren of the poverty-stricken, much maligned Jewish and Italian immigrants who flooded major American cities 1890-1920--a perfect example of the American dream coming true. Read Joyce Appleby's " Inheriting the Revolution" and "Is America Different?" edited by Byron Shafer if you want to learn some real history.

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