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White Trash

Cover of White Trash

White Trash

The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
The New York Times bestseller
A New York Times Notable and Critics' Top Book of 2016
Longlisted for the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction
One of NPR's 10 Best Books Of 2016 Faced Tough Topics Head On
NPR's Book Concierge Guide To 2016's Great Reads
San Francisco Chronicle's Best of 2016: 100 recommended books
A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of 2016
Globe & Mail 100 Best of 2016

"Formidable and truth-dealing . . . necessary." The New York Times
"This eye-opening investigation into our country's entrenched social hierarchy is acutely relevant." O Magazine

In her groundbreaking bestselling history of the class system in America, Nancy Isenberg upends history as we know it by taking on our comforting myths about equality and uncovering the crucial legacy of the ever-present, always embarrassing—if occasionally entertaining—poor white trash.


"When you turn an election into a three-ring circus, there's always a chance that the dancing bear will win," says Isenberg of the political climate surrounding Sarah Palin. And we recognize how right she is today. Yet the voters who boosted Trump all the way to the White House have been a permanent part of our American fabric, argues Isenberg.
The wretched and landless poor have existed from the time of the earliest British colonial settlement to today's hillbillies. They were alternately known as "waste people," "offals," "rubbish," "lazy lubbers," and "crackers." By the 1850s, the downtrodden included so-called "clay eaters" and "sandhillers," known for prematurely aged children distinguished by their yellowish skin, ragged clothing, and listless minds.

Surveying political rhetoric and policy, popular literature and scientific theories over four hundred years, Isenberg upends assumptions about America's supposedly class-free society––where liberty and hard work were meant to ensure real social mobility. Poor whites were central to the rise of the Republican Party in the early nineteenth century, and the Civil War itself was fought over class issues nearly as much as it was fought over slavery. Reconstruction pitted poor white trash against newly freed slaves, which factored in the rise of eugenics–-a widely popular movement embraced by Theodore Roosevelt that targeted poor whites for sterilization. These poor were at the heart of New Deal reforms and LBJ's Great Society; they haunt us in reality TV shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty. Marginalized as a class, white trash have always been at or near the center of major political debates over the character of the American identity.

We acknowledge racial injustice as an ugly stain on our nation's history. With Isenberg's landmark book, we will have to face the truth about the enduring, malevolent nature of class as well.
The New York Times bestseller
A New York Times Notable and Critics' Top Book of 2016
Longlisted for the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction
One of NPR's 10 Best Books Of 2016 Faced Tough Topics Head On
NPR's Book Concierge Guide To 2016's Great Reads
San Francisco Chronicle's Best of 2016: 100 recommended books
A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of 2016
Globe & Mail 100 Best of 2016

"Formidable and truth-dealing . . . necessary." The New York Times
"This eye-opening investigation into our country's entrenched social hierarchy is acutely relevant." O Magazine

In her groundbreaking bestselling history of the class system in America, Nancy Isenberg upends history as we know it by taking on our comforting myths about equality and uncovering the crucial legacy of the ever-present, always embarrassing—if occasionally entertaining—poor white trash.


"When you turn an election into a three-ring circus, there's always a chance that the dancing bear will win," says Isenberg of the political climate surrounding Sarah Palin. And we recognize how right she is today. Yet the voters who boosted Trump all the way to the White House have been a permanent part of our American fabric, argues Isenberg.
The wretched and landless poor have existed from the time of the earliest British colonial settlement to today's hillbillies. They were alternately known as "waste people," "offals," "rubbish," "lazy lubbers," and "crackers." By the 1850s, the downtrodden included so-called "clay eaters" and "sandhillers," known for prematurely aged children distinguished by their yellowish skin, ragged clothing, and listless minds.

Surveying political rhetoric and policy, popular literature and scientific theories over four hundred years, Isenberg upends assumptions about America's supposedly class-free society––where liberty and hard work were meant to ensure real social mobility. Poor whites were central to the rise of the Republican Party in the early nineteenth century, and the Civil War itself was fought over class issues nearly as much as it was fought over slavery. Reconstruction pitted poor white trash against newly freed slaves, which factored in the rise of eugenics–-a widely popular movement embraced by Theodore Roosevelt that targeted poor whites for sterilization. These poor were at the heart of New Deal reforms and LBJ's Great Society; they haunt us in reality TV shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty. Marginalized as a class, white trash have always been at or near the center of major political debates over the character of the American identity.

We acknowledge racial injustice as an ugly stain on our nation's history. With Isenberg's landmark book, we will have to face the truth about the enduring, malevolent nature of class as well.
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  • From the book Clinton's embarrassing second term didn't seem to provide lessons, insofar as the Republicans plunged ahead with their own (effectively) white trash candidate in 2008, Alaska governor Sarah Palin. The devastatingly direct Frank Rich of the New York Times referred to the Republican ticket as "Palin and McCain's Shotgun Marriage." Did the venerable John McCain of Arizona, ordinarily a savvy politician, have a lapse in judgment here? Slate produced an online video of Palin's hometown of Wasilla, painting it as a forgettable wasteland, a place "to get gas and pee" before getting back on the road. Wasilla was elsewhere described as the "punch line for most redneck jokes told in Anchorage." Erica Jong wrote in the Huffington Post, "White trash America certainly has allure for voters," which explains the photoshopped image of Palin that appeared on the Internet days after her nomination. In a stars-and-stripes bikini, holding an assault rifle and wearing her signature black-rimmed glasses, Palin was one-half hockey mom and one-half hot militia babe.

    News of the pregnancy of Palin's teenage daughter Bristol led to a shotgun engagement to Levi Johnston, which was arranged in time for the Republican National Convention. Us Weekly featured Palin on the cover, with the provocative title, "Babies, Lies, and Scandal." Maureen Dowd compared Palin to Eliza Doolittle of My Fair Lady fame, in getting prepped for her first off-script television interview. Could there be any more direct allusion to her questionable class origins? The Palin melodrama led one journalist to associate the Alaska clan with the plot of a Lifetime television feature. The joke was proven true to life two years later, when the backwoods candidate gave up her gig as governor and starred in her own reality TV show, titled Sarah Palin's Alaska.

    Palin's candidacy was a remarkable event on all accounts. She was only the second female of any kind and the first female redneck to appear on a presidential ticket. John McCain's advisers admitted that she had been selected purely for image purposes, and they joined the chorus trashing the flawed candidate after Obama's historic victory. Leaks triggered a media firestorm over Palin's wardrobe expense account. An angry aide categorized the Palins' shopping spree as "Wasilla hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast to coast."

    The Alaskan made an easy and attractive target. Journalists were flabbergasted when she showed no shame in displaying astounding lapses in knowledge. Her bungled interview with NBC host Katie Couric represented more than gotcha journalism: Palin didn't just misconstrue facts; she came across as a woman who was unable to articulate a single complex idea. (The old cracker slur as "idle-headed" seemed to fit.) But neither did Andrew Jackson run as an "idea man" in an earlier century, and it was his style of backcountry hubris that McCain's staffers had been hoping to revive. Shooting wolves from a small plane, bragging about her love of moose meat, "Sarah from Alaska" positioned herself as a regular Annie Oakley on the campaign trail.

    It was not enough to rescue her from the mainstream (what she self-protectively called "lamestream") media. Sarah Palin did not have a self-made woman's résumé. She could not offset the "white trash" label as the Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton could. She had attended six unremarkable colleges. She had no military experience (à la navy veteran Jimmy Carter), though she did send one son off to Iraq. Writing in the New Yorker, Sam Tanenhaus was struck by Palin's self-satisfied manner: "the certitude of being herself, in whatever...
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from April 25, 2016
    Isenberg (Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr), professor of history at Louisiana State University, tackles a topic rarely addressed by mainstream American writing on race and class as she skillfully demonstrates that “class defines how real people live.” Opening with a myth-busting origin story, Isenberg reveals the ways English class divisions were transplanted and embraced in the colonies at the expense of the lower classes. Colonization and expansion were accomplished because elites believed the poor were valuable only for the labor they provided for the nation. Isenberg then shows how words such as squatter, cracker, and white trash are rooted in public discussions over politics and land. Eugenics entered the conversation in an early 20th-century effort to breed out misfits and undesirables, and the Great Depression forced reevaluations of poverty and what it meant to be a “poor white” in the 1930s. In the book’s final section, a delectable mixture of political and popular culture, Isenberg analyzes the “white trash” makeover of the late 20th century thanks to movies such as Smokey and the Bandit, politicians Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s televangelism. A Marxist analysis of the lumpenproletariat this is not, but Isenberg’s expertise particularly shines in the examinations of early America, and every chapter is riveting. Illus. Agent: Geri Thoma, Writers House.

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White Trash
White Trash
The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
Nancy Isenberg
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