Synopses & Reviews
"White Trash will change the way we think about our past and present." T.J. Stiles, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Custer’s Trials
In her groundbreaking history of the class system in America, extending from colonial times to the present, Nancy Isenberg takes on our comforting myths about equality, uncovering the crucial legacy of the ever-present, always embarrassing––if occasionally entertaining––poor white trash
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.
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.
"With characteristically deep research and provocative insights, Nancy Isenberg reveals the pivotal role of the white poor in American history. From John Locke’s plans for the colonies to twentieth century eugenics, from the rise of Andrew Jackson to the modern Republican party, White Trash will change the way we think about our past and present." T.J. Stiles, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Custer’s Trials
"Isenberg’s expertise particularly shines in the examinations of early America, and every chapter is riveting." Publisher’s Weekly (Boxed, Starred Review)
"Meticulous… White Trash is a history of class, a history of race, and a morality tale about the dangers of othering. …Isenberg makes clear that no matter how othering occurs, it's a central theme of American history and all the ugly bits we want to ignore in order to perpetuate the myth of a great, classless and fair society. But while that narrative has always been the goal, it has never been the reality." LitHub.com
"A rigorously researched study of the entrenched system of racial classification that dispels many myths about American national identity.In this impressive work of social history, Isenberg challenges head-on America’s 'fable of class denial.'…From the eugenics movement to the rise of the proud redneck, Isenberg portrays a very real and significant history of class privilege in the United States. A riveting thesis supported by staggering research." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"Hers is a book that should forever change the way we think and talk about class, which Isenberg suggests is the rotting stage upon which American democracy will either stand or fall." The American Scholar
About the Author
Isenberg is the author of two prizewinning books, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr and Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America.
Nancy Isenberg on PowellsBooks.Blog
How does a culture that says it's a democracy, that prizes equality of opportunity, explain away its persistently marginalized people? With the hallowed American Dream, we try to convince ourselves that social mobility is more than a slogan, and that it has magically erased class as a barrier to success. Yet over time, America has seen more...