The Deep Roots of White Trash: A Review by Kate Tuttle


Nan­cy Isen­berg Copy­right Penguin/Mindy Stricke

"Amer­i­cans like the rhetoric of equal­i­ty but they don’t like it when it’s real."

Nan­cy Isenberg’s book “White Trash” begins by look­ing at the char­ac­ters in “To Kill a Mock­ing­bird.” Both the book and the movie play with the divide between Atti­cus Finch, who is saint­ly and prop­er, and the poor white fam­i­ly, the Ewells, whose daughter’s false rape accu­sa­tion is at the story’s cen­ter, as an exam­ple that there are two kinds of white peo­ple in the South. The book has been on Isenberg’s cur­ricu­lum for 15 years, as part of a his­to­ry class called “Crime, Con­spir­a­cy, and Court­room Dra­mas,” which she teach­es at Louisiana State University.

From “Mock­ing­bird,” Isenberg’s book trav­els back to the first Eng­lish arrivals on the Amer­i­can shore, trac­ing four cen­turies of how we talk and think about class (and race) in our most unequal union. It’s a brac­ing, some­times upset­ting read, begin­ning with its name, a term which still caus­es deep offense in some quarters.

 When did you first start work­ing on the idea of the “poor white” or “poor white trash?”
When you’re a his­to­ri­an, you grav­i­tate toward cer­tain issues. Part of it has to do with my grad­u­ate train­ing; my first book dealt with race, class and gen­der. But it also had to do with when I was work­ing on “Madi­son and Jef­fer­son,” which I coau­thored with Andrew Burstein. I became very aware of the impor­tance of how Jef­fer­son talked about the poor. He has this amaz­ing line where, at the same moment that he’s call­ing for the edu­ca­tion of the poor, some­thing the Vir­ginia leg­is­la­ture would reject, he refers to the poor as “rub­bish.” I became inter­est­ed in fig­ur­ing out the lan­guage: how do Amer­i­cans talk about the poor? And then I real­ized that this is con­nect­ed to the larg­er prob­lem Amer­i­cans have about class, that they believe a myth. We are told over and over again by writ­ers, some­times jour­nal­ists, but main­ly politi­cians, that we are an excep­tion­al coun­try, that we embrace the Amer­i­can dream. And what’s that root­ed to this idea that we believe in social mobil­i­ty. And we think that that idea, that promise, goes all the way back to the Amer­i­can rev­o­lu­tion, that at that moment we broke free from the British sys­tem and that some­how we unbur­dened our­selves from the Eng­lish class sys­tem. Now this is a prob­lem that Amer­i­cans have – they often pre­fer the myth over reality.
 I began to look more close­ly at how Amer­i­cans talk about class. There are a long list of slurs and of terms such as waste peo­ple, vagrants, ras­cals, rub­bish, lub­bers, squat­ters, crack­ers, clay-eaters, degen­er­ates, red­necks, and of course, trail­er trash. And you’ll see that just by pay­ing atten­tion to the words peo­ple use … what comes up over and over again, is the way the dis­cus­sion of class through­out our his­to­ry has forced on the cen­tral­i­ty of land and land own­er­ship, as well as what I call breeds, or breed­ing. And both of these big con­cepts come from the British. For exam­ple, the ear­ly inden­tured ser­vants, the poor who the British want­ed to dump into British colo­nial Amer­i­ca, they were called waste peo­ple. And where does that term come from? It comes from the idea of waste land.
 If a rich field, a pro­duc­tive field, is the sign of suc­cess, then fal­low and untilled soil, soul that is ignored, the scrub­by, swampy, com­plete­ly worth­less tract of land, is what waste land was. We for­get – through most of our his­to­ry we were an agrar­i­an nation. That means that land own­er­ship was the most impor­tant mark­er for des­ig­nat­ing an indi­vid­ual – and course we’re talk­ing about, pri­mar­i­ly, men – it was the most impor­tant sig­ni­fi­er of civic iden­ti­ty, it was the first way to mea­sure who had the right to vote, it also was a mea­sure of inde­pen­dence. Amer­i­cans didn’t believe every­body was free, you were only free if you had the eco­nom­ic where­with­al to con­trol your des­tiny and where did that come from? It came from own­ing land.
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One Response to The Deep Roots of White Trash: A Review by Kate Tuttle

  1. Jennifer Macaire says:

    Excel­lent arti­cle — very interesting.

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