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Publisher's Summary

The wretched and landless poor have existed from the time of the earliest British colonial settlement. 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.

In White Trash, Nancy Isenberg upends assumptions about America's supposedly class-free society. Poor whites were central to the rise of the Republican Party in the early 19th 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. 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.

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.

©2016 Nancy Isenberg (P)2016 Tantor

Critic Reviews

"This is breathtaking social history and dazzling cultural analysis at its best." (Michael Eric Dyson, author of Holler If You Hear Me)

What listeners say about White Trash

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400 Year Head Start Squandered

As a person of color and first generation college during the age of affirmative action debates, I am shocked to silence. During these debates I often wondered out loud how my white peers could be first generation college. My grandparents were brutally opressed and enslaved for 400 years, what did their grandparents do with a 400 year head start, that was my question to my peers. In truth I never received an adequate answer. Thanks to White Trash I am in a better position to understand their struggles to rise in the face of class warfare. Now I understand the visceral response to Clinton and Sarah Palin. Now i understand why so many whites hate affirmative action, becuase it tries to remedy the effects of slavery and oppression for ex-slaves while confining the mobility of poor whites, or so it would appear.

This is a must read book for all humanity, especially for those who are the offspring of former slaves. Having an understanding of class in America will help you understand that we have more in common with our poor white brothers than we would like to admit, mainly the reality that we have all been mislead.

776 people found this helpful

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Well written history, too much narrative spin

If you could sum up White Trash in three words, what would they be?

History , social class

What other book might you compare White Trash to and why?

EP Thompson The Making of the English Working Class because it studies the relationships of social and historical forces to the development of a whole class of people..

Who would you have cast as narrator instead of Kirsten Potter?

.

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

The narrator has chosen to express an attitude of judgement and disdain for the past. A "can you believe this?" is present in every sentence. Her emotional reactions to the facts became tedious to Me.

103 people found this helpful

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Snarky and condescending

Basically just a long series of stories to prove that America has always been classist, without offering any alternative path. It's a take down of our history and society without any offer of improvement or recognition of any advancements that have been made. She ignores any data on social mobility or the statistics showing that literally half the people in America's top quintile were not born into that class. Things are not perfect in America, but I fail to see how this book offers to make anything at all better.

6 people found this helpful

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Yankees Were a Degenerate Race

Esquire published a piece called, "20 Essential Books to Prepare You for What's Next" Emma Dibdin, February 3, 2017. Nancy Isenberg's "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America" (2016) is on that list, along with other notable works like George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" (1949), Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" (1985), and Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" Trilogy (2008-2010). The latter three are haunting dystopian fictions, a future or a past imagined, but not lived. "White Trash" is all too wretchedly true.

Isenberg's book and an opinion piece she wrote for The Washington Post "Five myths about class in America" (July 1, 2016) presaged the rise and election of Donald J. Trump, stating bluntly, "The 2016 election is about class." It was. Isenberg's scholarly work posits that class has always been present, from the colonies' inception and its use as a dumping ground for a landless, uneducated and starving populace by England's aristocracy. She describes Appalachian born Andrew Jackson "Old Hickory" as the first populist president, a common man who was elected by a constituency of miners and hillbillies. He wasn't the last, of course. "White Trash" doesn't address Donald J. Trump's presidency - he was elected at the end of 2016 - but his base of power is the white, America First voters she described.

"White Trash" is thought provoking and seriously depressing, especially when the mythical dividing line has always been, by popular acclaim, monetary only. There are the 'have-too-much', 'have some' and the dirt poor. It's more than just that. It's grandparents and great-grandparents that were uneducated and malnourished. There's the low Ewells in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1960), literally living in a dump and the downtrodden and peripatetic Joads In "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck (1939). They are the real life Mama June from "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" (2012-2014), undone by her unwillingness or inability to protect her children from a registered sex offender.

As important as Isenberg's topic is, the book simply is not well written. It overreaches to make arguments about perceptions of class, particularly from centuries ago. It ignores the very real divide of wealth, and perhaps even more key since the end of World War II, education, and the rolls both play in class mobility. It also misses the correlation between religion and stagnation of social position - although that would have made the book much longer. It meanders and repeats, but that may be because each chapter is meant to stand alone as an academic piece. Finally, it's simply as depressing as a seabird living in Prince William Sound in 1989, watching the Exxon Valdez hearing towards a reef.

Kirsten Potter was fine as a narrator.

The title of this review is a quote of Confederate States President Jefferson Davis used in the book.

[If this review helped, please press YES. Thanks!]

177 people found this helpful

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Eye-opening

Exploring the history of America's White underclass is helpful in understanding the political climate we find ourselves in today. As the attention of progressive politicians turn understandably to issues of racial justice, it's become easier to see why the members of America's disaffected White working-class, who feel increasingly forgotten, are willing to turn to demagogues who promise a return to an American middle-class Utopia that for the most part never really existed.

The author painstakingly chronicles the trials and tribulations of, and attitudes towards America's White underclass; from our colonial beginnings, through to present-day. It is an eye-opening read, that helped me understand both my own family history and the attitudes of those I disagree with politically.

132 people found this helpful

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Necessary, excellent, readable

4.5 stars. A most excellent history of class in America. Isenberg is meticulous in her details, balancing broad historical and cultural trends with individual stories, details, and anecdotes. She obviously has poured over myriad primary and secondary sources: journals and diaries of individuals over the past four centuries, newspaper accounts, and the works of other historians. This results in a work that manages to illuminate the persistent impact of class in America and, despite national mythos to the contrary, how often class is immutable. In doing so, one is reminded that the lines of division in America are not just based upon race--that in some ways, class is the more telling demarcation when it comes to treatment and quality of life and opportunity. Though racial minorities frequently find themselves in the lower classes, class nonetheless casts a wider net and the lowest class of whites have been the subject of ridicule and discrimination, as well as the target of legal actions (ranging from disenfranchisement to exclusion from education to eugenics). This interesting history, belying the overused trope that America is a class-less society where any may ascend and better themselves, highlights that though we typically see race as the foremost identifier, ideas of class may be equally insidious and just as important. Particularly interesting reading now, with identity politics in flux and racial and class tensions coming to the fore under the current administration. Recommended.

5 people found this helpful

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Painful little understood dynamic

This painful series of historical dynamics of the US culture reveals much about our present political situation. Racism and classism is deeply and deliberately imbedded in our collective psyche to the advantage of the very few who truly rule the USA.

21 people found this helpful

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Nothing Exposed Here, There's Better Elsewhere

What disappointed you about White Trash?

I guess I expected it to be a more informative account of the history and evolution of class structure in the country. But, full disclosure... it sat in my wish list for several months, languishing as I chose more interesting titles. So deep down, I probably did know better.

The problem is, who is this book for? Progressives or liberals (as I would identify) already know, or should already know, ALL of this. There is literally nothing "untold" being told in this book. Moderates, I expect, would be turned off by the contemptuous tone of the book, and look for some middle ground. And conservatives would never even read/listen to it, dismissing it as liberal propaganda. It just fails to fulfil its promise all around the course.

What could Nancy Isenberg have done to make this a more enjoyable book for you?

She could have followed through on the promise of actually exposing myths and laying bare the intrinsic hypocrisy of America. To be fair this has been done in many other, far better books. Charles C. Mann's 1491/1493 touches on some of the earlier elements of this. Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen also gives a much richer account. Even The Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, not a great read by any measure, gives better information. I'd thought this book could be a good companion to those, but was disappointed.

Furthermore, the author uses some terms, like Anglo-Saxon, over and over again... sometimes correctly, mostly not. The problem is, it's hard to tell if she is reflecting the racists' appropriation of the term, or she herself misunderstands it. Similar sketchy passages referring to Darwinism, survival of the fittest, and eugenics don't fill the listener with confidence that the author is completely conversant in these fields.

Similarly, it's hard to follow if the author is condemning the systems which created the waste people, or in fact condemning the waste people themselves. In some cases, each may be warranted, but where I think she really lost me was when she utterly fails to recognize the difference between Lonesome Rhodes (a fictional white trash character in A Face In the Crowd) and the actor portraying him, Andy Griffith. She also gives similar shoddy treatment to Dolly Parton, ignoring the difference between the stage persona with the artistry (She does later call Dolly "talented", but only to distinguish her from the likes of Sarah Palin and Tammy Faye Bakker... faint praise at best).

But most odd is the adoration for LBJ. Not even his closest contemporary allies could possibly be as sycophantic. I had to replay some of those parts.

What three words best describe Kirsten Potter’s voice?

Sufficiently condescending snark. I think it accurately portrayed the author's contempt.

One particularly interesting point in the reading though, was the pronunciation of the South Carolina town of Beaufort. Knowing the theme of the book, it would have seemed significant for the narrator to recognize, or in fact the author to point out in the text, that the name does not have a French pronunciation, as the same named town in North Carolina has, and how this town was pronounced in the book. The South Carolina town is pronounced like "Buford", befitting the theme of the book.

You didn’t love this book... but did it have any redeeming qualities?

It's mostly all true. I agree with virtually all the assessments of historical machinations to perpetuate a class system. A lot of it is well documented, and as stated previously, presented much better in other, more entertaining books. But some of it is speculative, retrofitting the author's notion into places it really has no business.

117 people found this helpful

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Great inquiry, faulty conclusions...

This work makes some very relevant points with regards to class and class origins within the United States. 90% of it is a good and informative read. Unfortunately, the author takes the account to a number of faulty conclusions in her summation. She goes back to the well that many authors and academics go to when trying to make a case for government intervention and expansion of socialistic policies. This includes viewing Scandinavia as a pancia and something that we can aspire to in the United States. Small Nordic countries of mostly homogeneous populations can never be compared to the United States, with a diverse and burgeoning population of 320 million plus. As someone who lived in Europe for over 9 years, I can attest that class is very much alive and well in Europe and many of the same class struggles that are there are also apparent in the U.S. Her conclusion could have been stronger and more original. Instead what we get are the same prescriptions that many other academics espouse. America is unfair, government is the solution etc. Unfortunately, nothing new here.

42 people found this helpful

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Fails to live up to it's title

White Trash claims it will tell “The 400-year untold history of class in America”. Instead, the book relays the 400-year history the ways in which poor-whites have been derogated in America, but largely omits the origin of the white lower class. The history begins with the arrival of criminals, beggars, and other “waste people” (as they were called at the time) from England. We are quickly given the litany of slurs and admonitions hurled against this lower class, but nowhere are we told how they came to be. They simply “are”, and this theme persists throughout the book. In era after era, “white trash” simply exist. “White trash” are presented as a poor, malnourished, uneducated group viewed by the rest of society as lazy, aggressive, incestuous, and ignorant, and Dr. Isenberg really never provides any alternative explanation for their state. There is little time spent on discussing social conditions that might have led to the existence of the “waste people” in the first place, nor of how external factors might have perpetuated their poor state. Dr. Isenberg focusing more on describing the insults hurled against the white poor by the more fortunate, and occasionally on questioning the egalitarian bonafides of the founders (certainly a worthy endeavor, but not particularly useful to advancing the aim of the book), but spends little time explaining where white trash came from and why they still exist.

Dr. Isenberg spends ample time discussing eugenics, but seems unable or unwilling to distinguish the theory of eugenics in particular from the broader concepts of evolution and heredity. She write as though she rejects the very notion of heredity, railing at one point against those who claim intelligence is heritable. Data show fairly unambiguously, however, that traits such an intelligence and self-control are heritable, at least in part. Rather than a nuanced discussion of the interplay between genes and environment, Dr. Isenberg sets up a false dichotomy between nature and nurture, falsely equates nature with eugenics, and then spends the better part of the book attacking her strawmen.

What makes this particularly frustrating is that she spends almost no time suggesting alternative explanations for the state of poor whites. If genetics are not to blame, than what is? To be clear, I believe there a numerous environmental factors in the history of United States which could be cited as reasons for persistent white poverty, but Dr. Isenberg largely ignores them, choosing instead to rail against eugenics. When the 20th century arrive, Dr. Isenberg adds the boogey-man of capitalism to the list of targets, but does little to explain how the free market system contributed to the plight of the white poor in America.
If you’re looking to better understand where the lower class in America came from, look elsewhere.

38 people found this helpful