[Isenberg] has written an eloquent volume that is more discomforting and more necessary than a semitrailer filled with new biographies of the founding fathers and the most beloved presidents. Viewed from below, a good angle for no one, America’s history is usefully disorienting and nearly always appalling. White Trash will have you squirming in your chair ... From this beginning, Ms. Isenberg moves confidently forward, through, for example, the class issues that undergirded the Civil War and the popular eugenics movement, favored by Theodore Roosevelt, that marked many as targets for sterilization. Slavery and racism are hardly discounted in this book, but she maintains her focus on poor whites ... This estimable book rides into the summer doldrums like rural electrification ... White Trash is indeed a bummer, and a thoroughly patriotic one. It deals in the truths that matter, which is to say, the uncomfortable ones.
Isenberg’s story is not, as her subtitle suggests, 'untold.' But she retells it with unusual ambition and (to use a class-laden term) in a masterly manner. Ranging from John Rolfe and Pocahontas to The Beverly Hillbillies, Isenberg provides a cultural history of changing concepts of class and inferiority ... In the book’s most ingenious passages, Isenberg offers a catalog of the insulting terms well-off Americans used to denigrate their economic inferiors ... Isenberg makes a strong case that one of the most common ways of stigmatizing poor people was to question their racial identity ... But Isenberg falls prey to one of the most common and pernicious fallacies in American popular discourse about class: For her, America’s landless farmers and precarious workers are by default white. 'Class,' she writes, 'had its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from its intersection with race.' Thus we get a history of class in America that discusses white tenant farmers at length, but scarcely mentions black sharecroppers or Mexican farmworkers.
[Isenberg] has authored a gritty and sprawling assault on this aspect of American mythmaking ... Isenberg looks upon old American traditions and scoffs, reinterpreting history through the prism of class divisions among the country’s white population, one more caste system in the land of the free ... Throughout this book, references to race are fleeting and awkward, appearing in parentheticals or occasional asides. At a time when so much of the national debate over inequality centers on racial divides, Isenberg maintains that 'class has its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from its intersection with race.' Still, it’s hard to skirt over race when dissecting class in America. At times, the author justifies her choice by implying a sort of equivalence of hardship ... In an echo of arguments by Thomas Frank and others, Isenberg worries that today we once again are seeing 'a large unbalanced electorate that is regularly convinced to vote against its collective self-interest.'
Poverty, in the form of miserable living conditions, dirtiness, ignorance, illness, violence, and despair, was viewed as the inherited misfortune of blighted bloodlines. Isenberg shows how consistent this prejudice has been over the centuries, carrying on with only a few alterations right down to the present. The first few chapters of White Trash can be heavy sledding due to the density of information and occasional clumsiness of Isenberg’s prose ... If White Trash is rather weak at weaving its assorted elements into a coherent narrative, it sheds bright light on a long history of demagogic national politicking, beginning with Jackson. It makes Donald Trump seem far less unprecedented than today’s pundits proclaim ... White Trash is weakest in its handling of race, a theme intimately entangled with the notion of a white-trash identity, but a subject Isenberg avoids when at all possible.
But what Ms. Isenberg insists upon, again and again, with fact after fact, is that this stratification, this oppressive division by class, has always been with us ... From Elvis Presley, Orval Faubus and The Beverly Hillbillies to Deliverance, the presidencies of Johnson, Carter and Clinton, even to Honey Boo Boo, Ms. Isenberg shows how the colorful image of 'rednecks' and 'trailer trash' has developed in the American consciousness, and has masked the realities of downward mobility, class stagnation and deprived opportunity. The research and scholarship in this book is impressive and wide-ranging. Ms. Isenberg offers far too much to cover here, even in brief summary. She has a point of view, and is not shy in sharing it. But her polemic does not overwhelm the educational value of this revealing book. There is much to learn, and much that will surprise in White Trash.
...[a] richly detailed, indispensable study ... One of the limitations of Isenberg’s study is its regional bias, which makes racial tensions among working-class Americans come across as a virtual southern monopoly ... Still, in exposing the tangled origins and richly variegated articulations of America’s signature civic faith of baiting and biologizing its poor population, Isenberg has done an inestimable service.
Nancy Isenberg argues that America has never been the egalitarian 'city on a hill' we’ve been led to believe (no debate there), and that our hateful attitudes toward the people variously known as crackers, hillbillies and rednecks are as deeply rooted in our history as is our class anxiety. The strength of White Trash is the author’s prodigious research ... Yet this wealth of material ultimately proves a snare, entangling author and reader alike. One wishes Isenberg would look up now and then from her furious research (and it is furious, in every sense of the word) to take account of the massive changes going in the society she is writing about ... A century and a half of technological and social change are entirely missing in this chronicle of a static nation built on unchanging hatreds and delusions ... the lives and voices of actual individuals in poverty are almost entirely absent from her account, which tells us almost nothing about the traditions, religious practice, origins or culture of those who are its ostensible subject ... informative but strangely narrow for such a sprawling work.
Isenberg has written an important call for Americans to treat class with the same care that they now treat race ... Isenberg’s argument is convincing, but there are a few places where her information falls short of satisfying the curious reader. For example, she refers frequently to the stereotype that white-trash people are 'clay eaters'–but if that label is based in fact, as it seems to be, why would the phenomenon happen? (Perhaps people were driven by mineral deficiencies. I had to look that one up.) If questions about such details distract from the more important inquiries, that would be a shame. In the months since Isenberg would have finished writing this book, U.S. class divisions have become a central issue in the presidential election. Her work may well help that focus lead to progress.
[Isenberg] argues that our society was riven by class conflict and anxiety at every stage of its long history, from the first English colonists to the political upheavals of the present. This claim isn’t necessarily controversial, but the depth and variety of evidence she marshals in its support shows how class connects in startling ways to landscape, heredity, government policy, and popular culture. The book is a carefully researched indictment of a particularly American species of hypocrisy, and it’s deeply relevant to the pathologies of contemporary America.
White Trash is a dizzying, dazzling four-hundred-year-long tour of American history from Pocahontas to Sarah Palin, seen from a vantage point that students of American history occupy all too rarely: that of the disposable citizens whose very presence disrupts what Isenberg calls our 'national hagiography' ... Isenberg’s argument is based on painstakingly supported factual analysis ... White Trash loses some of its vitality as Nancy Isenberg leaves behind the wreckage she has handily made of early American rhetoric, and draws toward the present day.
I found Isenberg’s book by turns fascinating and exasperating ... The early — and best — chapters of White Trash detail how 17th-century British elites saw the American colonies as a vast dumping ground for England’s lower classes in order 'to drayne away the filth' from the homeland ... But even as Isenberg debunks one politically convenient fiction, she perpetuates an equally pernicious one, that of the special victimization of the white poor. Time and again, Isenberg soft-pedals the long and ugly history of white-on-black violence and minimizes the myriad ways — legal, economic, social, and cultural — the poorest of poor whites have been privileged over black and brown Americans ... Isenberg appears to have decided to write a history of poor white America and then persuaded herself that poor black America was only tangential to her story.