Book Review: White Trash: The 400-Year History of Class in America
Book by Nancy Isenberg
Review by Michelle Meyers
February 15, 2017
In writing one of the most comprehensive histories of lower class white America that has been published to date, Nancy Isenberg, a professor at Louisiana State University, has perhaps also collected one of the most comprehensive lists of synonyms for the very term “white trash”: waste people, offscourings, lubbers, rednecks, trailer trash, swamp people, squatters, hillbillies, clay-eaters, crackers, rubbish, swamp people, degenerates, etc.
Isenberg dismantles notions of white poverty and the American Dream often perpetuated by even the most progressive of history classes. The original settlers at Jamestown and elsewhere in the colonies were not simply Puritans escaping religious persecution—in fact, a significant demographic of the colonies’ earliest occupants included indentured servants, children, prostitutes, criminals, and England’s other “waste people.” The disenfranchised and dispossessed (essentially, those who did not own property) were consistently looked down upon as lazy and idle-minded—these individuals were responsible for their lowly status, not the systematic oppression of a society that provided little opportunity for upward mobility. In an extreme example, James Oglethorpe, Georgia’s founder, proposed a ban on slavery (and thus on any black people living in the soon-to-be state of Georgia), not because Oglethorpe was morally opposed to slavery, but because he envisioned in Georgia a plan of “agrarian equality” among its all-white occupants, preventing the kinds of class divisions that had occurred in other slave-holding states in the South. Oglethorpe’s plan, needless to say, did not find the widespread support necessary for it to be enacted.
To be fair, over time, there were occasional shifts in whether a particular group was looked upon with disdain or with honor. Initially, squatters, or those who settled on and cultivated the vacant frontier lands technically owned by wealthy speculators, were thought of as a variant of white trash. However, Isenberg notes that as a result of Andrew Jackson (the original “cracker” president), the image of the squatter was thereafter transformed in the public imagination: “The squatter all at once became a romantic figure in popular culture.”
The Civil War as well was framed in terms of class, although Isenberg is clear to acknowledge the many complexities that were responsible for this bloody clash between the North and the South. Ironically, if there was anything the two regions could agree on, it was their adverse perceptions of poor whites in the South (the North viewed the so-called degeneracy of white trash in the South as a result of the idleness and joblessness created by plantations and the slave economy, while the South attributed such degeneracy to “bad blood,” foregrounding the popular eugenics movement that was to follow in the late 19th century and early 20th century).
Isenberg goes on to analyze a number of the most iconic portrayals of white poverty in the 20th century, including discussions of James Agee’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), the film Deliverance (1972, based on the novel by James Dickey), and Dorothy Allison’s memoir Bastard Out of Carolina (1992). She examines the presidencies of Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, all attempting to use their Southerness as an asset to their presidencies (with differing levels of efficacy). Finally, Isenberg describes how the wildly successful careers of Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton were able to contort the image of the redneck into a source of pride, not shame.
Critics of White Trash have pointed out the erasure of race in this book. This is true to a degree—lower class people of color are only discussed in relation to lower class whites—but Isenberg makes it clear, even in the title of the book itself, that her intention was to provide an exhaustive history of the white lower classes in America. Whether that is a valid intention, to separate class and race in this way, is up to the reader.
In addition, for all of the detailed descriptions Isenberg employs to explore issues of whiteness and class in the earliest days of what would become America, she spends relatively little time analyzing the politics of the white lower classes under the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, instead focusing on reality TV shows such as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty in her rather short section on contemporary society. I would have been curious to know more about Isenberg’s perspectives on white trash and the politics of our current era, especially in light of Trump’s recent election to the presidency, but maybe that is the topic of another book yet to be written.
WHAT WE’RE READING NOW
I Am What I Am Reading
Daniel Cross Turner
The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it’s that simple?
~ Langston Hughes, “Theme for English B” (1951)
*Much of what I suppose we should call my “formal” (i.e., analytical / school-training / book-learning) reading history, I can trace to this superficially “simple,” brilliantly complex poem from Langston Hughes, “Theme for English B” (1951), with its seemingly deferential, devastatingly deferred opening, from the White instructor’s cute, curt, but cutting little rhymes, his simpleminded schemes, to the black student’s wondrous rejoinder (“I wonder if it’s that simple”?) that challenges the very simplicity of simplicity, that questions the wonder of what it is we are, which is as much things external as internal, which is as much scapes and actions and objects as likes and feelings and desires. For Hughes’s speaker, nothing is so black and white (or Black and White, for that matter), even as that White prof tries to make it seem so simple, under the sign of U.S. apartheid circa 1950, where and when it was deemed un-American to commix White and Black, even as Mr. Hughes’s own DNA commingled these with Indigenous American strains. I read formally the poem for the first time in high school (via South Carolina public education system) with the great Mr. Bill Pell, who had a gong suspended from one side of his classroom, in case you disagreed with a particular interpretation of a passage, and then above us on the ceiling a sign that read “EMBRYO ZONE,” for ideas that had potential, but that you couldn’t quiiiiiiiiiite prove, drawn from a student’s pondering over whether the Ebro River was really a pun on “embryo” in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” (1927), since the story centers on a conflict over getting an abortion, on whether to end an embryo or let it thrive. Mostly, Pell was the one who got gonged. Mostly, my time ever since has been spent up in the EMBRYO ZONE, for better, worse. Mr. Pell, I don’t know whether to kiss you or kill you. But, bless you, I think. What I remember from reading formally those ostensibly simple, informal words and thoughts from the great Black Renaissance (and after) poet/writer/activist Langston Hughes, in a poem published two years before he would be hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to apologize for his socialist poems/writings/activities is this: Are we what we are reading? Though I’m white—very white, white as all, if you know me—and therefore somewhat more free (still), Hughes’s poem ever since has been a part of me, as I suppose I am a part of it in some way, adding my psychic energies to its field of meanings, as it has done the same to me, to this changing, roiling, walking, talking, thinking, feeling/unthinking energetic field of meanings that I am. I, too, like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love, and I, too, like to work, READ, learn, and understand life. Yes, I, too, like Bessie, bop, or Bach on old scratchy records in low light, and I, too, used to like a pipe for a Christmas present, but not now. My Dad wore a fedora and long smoked a pipe; after he died of lung cancer in 2011, I held fast to the former habit, shook loose the latter. I am Christian, by certain uncertain definitions of that term, so celebrate Christmas. But this doesn’t mean that I’m not like folks who celebrate other faiths. And this doesn’t mean that I do not like folks who celebrate other faiths. One point of Hughes’s wondrous wondering, wandering poem being that that page enters you, as much as it comes out of you. Just as all the pages you’ve read before have entered you and changed you, created and recreated you. It’s not so simple: the poem’s model of reading and writing break against an essentialist vision of a “true” “you.” But it seems to me more true. By the way, Langston Hughes—Black, White, Native, gay, bi, socialist, democratic, et al.—did indeed apologize before HUAC. Not that he begged forgiveness. He made apology (meaning “defense”) for his right to freedom of expression, and ours—even as he was marked Black, halved at the time into African American, therefore not fully American, therefore somewhat less free to express. He defended his poems, and his right to write them. That’s American. Not incidentally, while Hughes was born in the Midwest and is still associated most fully with his time in Harlem, one need not stretch far to account him a crucial writer of the American South, particularly in transregional, hemispheric, and global contexts (e.g., his astonishing appropriations of Black southern forms of jazz and blues; his visit to his father who deserted the family for Mexico; his travels to the Caribbean and translations of Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén; his influence on the Négritude movement). That’s southern.
I am what I am reading for what I am writing.
*Over the south-determined gestation period of the past nine months, I read three books sent me to review for scholarly journals—two done, one in still in the works:
- Review of The Band: Pioneers of Americana Music by Craig Harris. Commissioned by Steven L. Hamelman for Rock Music Studies 3:3 (2016). http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19401159.2016.1211598
- Review of Ten Years After Katrina: Critical Perspectives on the Storm’s Effect on American Culture and Identity, edited by Mary Ruth Marotte and Glenn Jellenik. Commissioned by Christina Lee for Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 30:2 (2016).
- Review of Understanding Pat Conroy by Catherine Seltzer. Commissioned by Robert West for The Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Cultures (in progress).
*Also, I was asked by the online literary journal storySouth to interview two emerging poets about their coauthored volume of Appalachian ecopoetry that offers an engaging model of collaborative authorship unloosed from the traditional idea of the solo brooding lyric-maker recollecting in tranquility the spontaneous overflow of emotion, which emerged as the following interview: “All Flow: An Interview with Amy Wright and William Wright.” storySouth. Edited by Terry L. Kennedy. (2016).
- Wright, Amy, and William Wright. Creeks of the Upper South. Greensboro, North Carolina: Jacar Press/UnicornPress, 2016.
*I was honored to write a brief essay for the South Carolina Academy of Authors digital media in memory of historian, folklorist, and mentor Charles “Chaz” Joyner, who wrote Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), a field-shaping account of Gullah history, language, religion, and folkways in Georgetown County, South Carolina. I read the essays collected by historians Vernon Burton and Wink Prince in homage to their colleague and longtime friend, and put together the following piece for Chaz:
- Burton, Orville Vernon and Eldred E. Prince, Jr., editors. Becoming Southern Writers: Essays in Honor of Charles Joyner. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2016.
*I am reading the following as I am writing a scholarly monograph on undeadness in contemporary southern literature and other media (film, television, music, graphic narratives, etc.). The monograph, presently titled Regions of the Dead, elaborates and extends ideas of undeadness set forth in Undead Souths: The Gothic and Beyond in Southern Literatue and Culture (Louisiana State University Press, 2015), which I coedited with Eric Gary Anderson and Taylor Hagood.
+readings that focus on death and deathways vis-à-vis refining the definition of undeadness:
- Holland, Sharon P. Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.
- Lauro, Sarah Juliet. The Transatlantic Zombie: Slavery, Rebellion, and Living Death. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2015.
+readings to further attach object-oriented ontology to visions of undead ecology:
- Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
- Bryant, Levi R. The Democracy of Objects. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2011.
- Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
+readings to link undeadness with current studies of deep southern/trans-Caribbean/African diasporic cultures:
- Allewaert, Monique. Ariel’s Ecology: Plantations, Personhood, and Colonialism in the American Tropics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
- Brown, Ras Michael. African-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina Lowcountry. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- Cartwright, Keith. Sacral Grooves, Limbo Gateways: Travels in Deep Southern Time, Circum-Caribbean Space, Afro-creole Authority. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013.
- Lowe, John Wharton. Calypso Magnolia: The Crosscurrents of Caribbean and Southern Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.
- Simmons, K. Merinda. Changing the Subject: Writing Women across the African Diaspora. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2014.
*I am reading the following as I am writing a coauthored scholarly article on William Faulkner and the representation of so-called “primitive” religious practices of enslaved African diasporic subjects in relation to Native Americans in Mississippi circa 1830s.
+current studies of Native southern studies:
- Anderson, Eric Gary. “Raising the Indigenous Undead.” The Palgrave Handbook of the Southern Gothic. Edited by Susan Castillo Street and Charles L. Crow. London: Palgrave, 2016. 323-335.
- Taylor, Melanie Benson. Reconstructing the Native South: American Indian Literature and the Lost Cause. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.
+Faulkner and physicality/materiality and/or psychological-somatic (dis)ability:
- Hagood, Taylor. Faulkner, Writer of Disability. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015.
- Watson, Jay. Reading for the Body: The Recalcitrant Materiality of Southern Fiction, 1893-1985. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.
*I am re-reading the following as I am writing about continuing questions/challenges initiated/ignited by New Southern Studies (NSS) guru Jon Smith.
- Smith, Jon. Finding Purple America: The South and the Future of American Cultural Studies. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013.
Weary of the unwieldiness of the “South” as a conceptual frame, Smith’s tack in Finding Purple America is to tack things down to the very local: replacing the often puffy, overblown“regional” with the micro-local, all the way down to his own backyard garden, as a more successful category for regrounding conversations and connections within and across cultural spaces. I like the idea of the micro-local, but I’m not yet ready to throw over entirely the regional dynamic, particularly as I endure daily the political, social, cultural, historical impacts of living and working within something aligned, if loosely, as the red states. There are still some connective—not tissues (let’s move past the old organic metaphor)—but circuits (undead cyborg South made to rise again) that animate something that works sometimes like a region still, despite the massive, myriad differences and diversities coursing through this broad geopolitical, multi-everything expanse of what it makes only a little sense only at times to call “the former Confederacy”, among many other things (we might also recall here sociologist Larry Griffin’s wry observation that the U.S. Civil War was for millions of southerners—namely, enslaved Black southerners—not a defeat, but a victory). Smith forces the question: how can a field defined as southern studies exist without defining southern in sufficiently rigorous terms? The case for or against exceptionalism needs to be made prima facie, it would seem, for any current southern studies projects to be meaningful. But, I would also ask, what more can and should we be doing as southernists with engagement in American studies, as Americanists with engagement in southern studies? Are there any reasonable critiques, disclaimers, riders, parameters to the exceptionalist critique? Are there any particularities—historical, cultural, (socio)linguistic, biological, ecological, etc.—that we might use to meaningfully ground, for the time being, a “South,” one of many, understood non-exceptionally, broadly, loosely, connectively, globally, etc.? Like it or not, and Smith will probably like it if you don’t like it (the opening section of the book is titled “Disrupting Everyone’s Enjoyment”), he’s going to keep pressing pressure points. Specifically, I disagree with Jon a good deal on what I see as his antipathy lodged against the “boomer” generation of critics, who, in my opinion, were, like Jon, valuable killjoys in their time too, disrupting useless enjoyments then, and driving debates away from stodgy essentialist modes. No, they maybe didn’t, as Jon charges, go “far enough”; in this case, they critiqued regional essentialism, but didn’t make the proper jump ahead to challenging exceptionalist models. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, I’d offered as some defense. Jon and I are still in talks on this, at least the last time we talked. In the meantime, I am re-reading some of the following by “boomer”-scholars, to see just how far it is I think they went, if not too far, or not far enough—in order to press out objects of continuing critical value, for instance, in Donaldson’s use of ethnographic theory and her critique of old gothic modes, in Kreyling’s criticism of the institutional practices of southernism, in Yaeger’s focus on “dirt” as a form of objecthood or thingness, with classed, raced, and gendered implications:
- Donaldson, Susan V. “” The Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Cultures. Special Issue: Southern Roots and Routes: Mobility and Migration. Edited by Eric Gary Anderson, Susan V. Donaldson, and Suzanne W. Jones. 65:1 (2012): 5-15.
- ———. “Making Darkness Visible: An Afterword and an Appreciation.” In Undead Souths: The Gothic and Beyond in Southern Literature and Culture. Edited by Eric Gary Anderson, Taylor Hagood, and Daniel Cross Turner. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015. 261-265.
- Kreyling, Michael. Inventing Southern Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
- Yaeger, Patricia. Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women’s Writing, 1930-1990. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
I am what I am reading for what I am teaching.
+to teach plantation and post-plantation literature and film:
- Crank, James A. New Approaches to Gone with the Wind. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015.
- Greeson, Jennifer Rae. Our South: Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.
- Hinrichsen, Lisa. Possessing the Past: Trauma, Imagination, and Memory in Post-Plantation Southern Literature. Baton Rogue: Louisiana State University Press, 2015.
- Wells, Jeremy. Romances of the White Man’s Burden: Race, Empire, and the Plantation in American Literature, 1880-1936. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2011.
+to teach an array of media around the aural turn, including southern musical strains (Dixieland jazz, Delta blues, bluegrass, hillbilly, honky tonk, rockabilly, gospel, rock-n’-roll, outlaw country, southern rock, funk, Dirty South hip hop, hickster folk, Athens scene alt, etc.) as well as Crazy Heart (2009), directed by Scott Cooper:
- Nunn, Erich. Sounding the Color Line: Music and Race in the Southern Imagination. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015.
- Ryan, Tim A. Yoknapatawpha Blues: Faulkner’s Fiction and Southern Roots Music. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015.
+to teach the following collection of responses to archival photographs housed in the South Caroliniana Library that interweaves documentary, creative writing, and cultural studies elements, touching on images of segregated “tent cities” in the wake of the 1886 Charleston earthquake, funerary photographs, an antebellum house party, a Freedmen’s school, and much more:
- Jones, R. Mac, and Ray McManus. Found Anew: Poetry and Prose Inspired by the South Caroliniana Library Digital Collections. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2015.
I am what I am writing.
*This my Theme for south: a scholarly journal.
Let us return to Hughes’s poem about the wondrous complexities of reading and writing, and how we are what we are reading (among other things). Did this page come out of me? Well, this page (which is not a page, really, but a digital transcription of a page) is both White and not-white. My page is colored with digital typescript, but hopefully maybe also colored, charged, changed by energies, affects, ideas of non-Whites, open to learning from others and therefore not narcissistic, not blank, not Whited-out/whited-out. And therefore this page did not solely wholly come out of me. In part at least it came from the intellectual and emotional and sensory intensities provoked, evoked during and after the experiences of reading the aforementioned texts (loosely defined, unbounded) by these various writers (under the sign of a very post-Barthesian sense, where the “author” as such is long dead, only an undead simulacrum/theoretical rest-frame, a thin ghostly outline haunting those legion pages like a watermark). In part at least this page came from all these past pages that passed through me. So I will try to pass it on, encompassing others, too.
If not simple or true, at least maybe someday someone will say that we’ve done good with all our readings and writings. Or, to cite another fine, very different poem from another fine, very different poet on down the line, Donald Justice’s “There is a gold light in certain old paintings” (2004), perhaps when our day is done, “Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.” And if not, then maybe they’ll just say what Marlene Dietrich as brothel-madam Tanya says at the near-end of Touch of Evil (1958) about Orson Welles as crooked-legged, crooked police captain, face-down in a murky cesspool, stone-dead: “What does it matter what you say about people?” Either way. We’re good. Either way, the world is very dusty. Let us work.
Especially as we enter President Trump’s America this morning, blaring and blazing, screaming and streaming with red-trucker-hat motto, “Make America Great Again,” let us recall, perhaps, that being White doesn’t make us not like the same things other folks like who are other “races,” and, perhaps, that being White doesn’t make us not like other “races.”Let us maybe recall, too, that some of us are still somewhat more free, and that some of us are still somewhat less free. Is that American? Then let us, if you will, recall another Langston Hughes poem, “Let America Be America Again” (1936). Then, if you like, let us work to let America be America again.