White Trash – Nancy Isenberg
6 / 10
This is an August / September read, but I think it requires its own space due to the number of personal comments I have. The title got a fair amount of critical coverage upon its release, not least of all due to the Heroin Epidemic (of NYT fame last year), and the rise of Donald Trump and his particular (ironical) embodiment of disenfranchised disdain and disrespect for the American government – and his base consisting largely of poor, white Americans. This fascination with “white trash America” was further underscored by Kevin Williamson’s now-infamous article in the National Review in March of this year, an article in which he states: “the white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.” In fact, both Bookforum and the Atlantic (and, I’m sure, others) cite this exact article in their reviews of Nancy Isenberg’s work, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.*
I personally have long held a fascination with the white American underclass, in part because I am tenuously “of it.” My maternal grandmother grew up on a farm on the border of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, where her parents also ran a border bar for extra cash. Her father was an alcoholic; she describes his beatings of her older sister with a fear that resonates seventy years later. In the mountains of Appalachia in the Great Depression, I can only imagine the goings-on inside that bar (the structure of which remains in the family). Both sides of my family hail from the Pittsburgh area, a quick drive from which puts you in the middle of nowhere: in farm country, Amish country, “redneck” Appalachia.
Today in my hometown, 45 minutes outside of Pittsburgh, the culture of Appalachian, white-trash pride holds strong. By this I’m referencing a pervasive sense of outsider-dom, an identification with Rural, Red, Hardworking America, even among middle- and high-school kids. At the local bar, boys and girls wearing ripped jeans and flannels drunkenly grind up on their high school sweethearts while playing pool and singing along, equally loudly, to Toby Keith’s “I Love this Bar” and “Fuck the Police” (with no sense of irony, given that the county is decidedly red). Billboards alongside the highway feature rosy-cheeked babies with the caption, “Take my hand – not my life.” What led to this milieu?
To be fair, I can hardly claim to identify as a member of the “white underclass.” (Being at least tenuously of a culture not only makes it more inherently interesting, but also makes the voyeurism a little easier to stomach than, say, a fascination with inner-city POC youth culture.) My parents both have in-demand, white-collar professions. Growing up, we listened to public radio and watched MSNBC and CNN every night. I had, in succession; classical music lessons; a reliable car to drive around; and an education at an elite college. I’m definitely more of the listens-to-Fleet-Foxes-too-much, grew-up-in-the-suburbs breed of young white American than most of the kids I see at my local bar, let alone the isolated working poor that are the subjects of this book. But this didn’t stifle my interest. Simply put, I was anticipating this book with a level of excitement I usually reserve for free samples at Whole Foods. So what do all my inner musings about the white underclass have to do with Nancy Isenberg?
As it turns out, not a lot. The reasons for my excitement regarding this book fizzled out in the first hundred pages or so. The Atlantic article’s criticism re: Isenberg’s focus on the south proves to be quite true. There is very little in this book distinguishing even the Appalachian South from the mass of Southern plantation workers and “free whites” that dominate her narrative. The appropriate revision on this title is: White Trash: The 400-Year History of Class in the American South.
A less-than-minor point, that. Appalachia alone extends far northward from the area of Isenberg’s interest – rarely going north of NC – and the stereotype of hillbilly Appalachia-dwellers remains, rightly or not, an iconic symbol of the American “white trash” existence. Not to mention that US westward expansion is virtually ignored, minus a few paragraphs here and there. Make no mistake – the South is definitely the star of this show.
Even assuming this geographical restriction, we are required to forgive Isenberg many an authorly transgression. She commits, firstly, the cardinal sin of authorship: the book is boring. The first half or more of this creation is a very strict history, with little anthropological or sociological focus. For many who may have picked up this title expecting analysis, humanizing anecdotes, and cultural enlightenment, there’s not much to be had. Isenberg dryly details the ways in which the Confederate class system, and its precarious racial conceptions (and atrocities) led to entrenched poor white identities, spurred on by a broader cultural dialogue on eugenics (and the looming realities of America’s largely capitalist system). Yet she fails to provide many specific examples that wouldn’t be found in a grade-school history book. This is a history painstakingly stitched together almost purely from fragments of primary sources (albeit meticulously researched primary sources). I genuinely wonder whether there are not more words in quotations or paraphrased over the course of this book than words by the author herself. Is this how academic histories are supposed to read? Though I’m not a historian, I doubt it.
And in calling it such, I come to my second point: this is definitely much more an academic selection than a popular history, and should be marketed as such. It’s probable that Viking (now an imprint of Penguin, like everybody else) was trying to ride the recent wave of fascination with poor whites in modern America, and turn this study, via marketing, into a kind of pop-history bestseller. However, this strategy was not only misguided but disingenuous. The book features over 120 pages of reference notes alone. And, as far as academic histories go, the book is extremely repetitive, and lacks the level of clarity necessary to bind such a large amount of research. It is filled with source and summary, slightly lacking in thesis or thought. What significance does Isenberg attribute to her subject matter? How do the thoughts of Thomas Jefferson and John Locke map onto modern society? What is the essence of “white trash” (music, food, clothing, ethnic identities…? Notions of masculinity and femininity?)? How did we get to the heroin-addled, gun-toting Trump supporter of today (and is that picture even remotely accurate)? What does the future hold for the white underclass? Don’t look to Isenberg for any of these questions, let alone answers.
Well, one might reply, she does say it’s a class history. How can you hold her accountable for anthropological subtleties? To which I say: there is very little economic analysis, Marxist or otherwise, to buoy this theory of Isenberg’s subject matter. There is simply the historical record. For instance: North Carolina was founded as “the first white trash colony”; poor whites have been pitted against blacks in a sinister red-herring on the part of the economic (and sociopolitical) elite since the first slaves set foot on American soil (of course, “white trash” as an inherently racist term equated poor whites with those of other races, implying racial impurity.); Andrew Jackson was a “cracker” who changed the political landscape, if not stereotyped notions of white identity. All interesting things to read about, all relevant to Isenberg’s enormous scope – but all without an ostensible focus, economic or otherwise.
As Isenberg dutifully enters the final stretch of the book, she shifts somewhat dramatically from a class analysis to some of the cultural tidbits we wanted all along. She discusses Elvis, reality TV, and the distinctions between “redneck” and “hillbilly” – though with no real enthusiasm or focal point. Though the present day offers myriad (easily accessed) resources, social and otherwise, Isenberg takes little advantage of these in her accounting of Sara Palin, “trailer trash,” or the success of “Duck Dynasty.” It’s clear (even before realizing that her prior publications include Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America, and Madison and Jefferson), that Isenberg is a scholar of the American Revolutionary and Civil War eras.
This is an extremely thorough start on the book it could have been, and an excellent resource for anyone interested in “white trash” America (if only as a bibliographical godsend). I’ve spent many hours since beginning this book exploring the various sources espoused within. I can only hope that this volume serves to spur the exploration I was expecting, or readers like myself will be relegated to reactionary headlines and stereotyped portrayals (amidst the few insightful novels and memoirs) that come our way.
* The current complement to this title, Hillbilly Elegy, has not gone unnoticed; however, I was initially looking for an enlightened analysis of poor white conditions in the US. I may still pick up the other title, though.