[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.'