[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.
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.