- White Trash: The Four-Hundred-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg
New York: Viking, 2016
xi + 460 pp., $28.00 (cloth); $17.00 (paper)
Nancy Isenberg begins her ambitious effort to use the four-century history of "white trash" to reveal the "untold story of class in America" by deftly tracing "the ongoing influence of English definitions of poverty and class" (4) in shaping American attitudes toward the marginalized "waste people" of the perpetually impoverished classes (xv). Poor whites who found no place in the prevailing economic or social order were seen as threatening its stability in both England and the colonies. Thus despite his reputation as a "great and glorious asserter of natural Rights," (43) John Locke included in The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina certain provisions for a quasi-feudal colonial hierarchy that granted both aristocratic standing and actual wealth in property to certain "titled elites and manor lords" (44) while creating a permanent white servant class bound to work their properties for life. When the Carolina colony was divided, critical elements of Locke's plan were speedily incorporated into the governing structure of the new polity of South Carolina.
Locke's American disciples of the Revolutionary era appeared to be more concerned about the societal than the human consequences of white impoverishment. Like Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin saw the experience of settling and building up a vast territorial expanse as simply too propitious for acceptance of severe poverty as the consequence of anything other than sloth. Though he thought they might be prodded out of their poverty by making them "uneasy in rest" (74), Franklin envisioned no rags-to-great-riches stories for these laggards. Rather, he hoped that, properly motivated, they might achieve what he called "happy mediocrity" (65) in a middle class meant to serve as an expansive, stabilizing presence within the larger society.
Isenberg shows that Thomas Jefferson was also loath to see the stability and good order of the new republic jeopardized by allowing too much freedom and influence to the landless white "rubbish" (91) who, urged on by demagogues, might seek to throw over a system in which they were so little invested. All the more reason, Jefferson thought, to nurture a large, dispersed population of inherently virtuous small farmers who owned the land they tilled. As a consistently equilibrating presence, this "solid independent yeomanry" would occupy the middle tier of society, "looking askance at those above, yet not ventured to jostle them" (102–3).
Like many of his contemporaries, Jefferson foresaw migration to the interior of the young nation drawing the superfluous population of "waste people" into the untamed backcountry frontier in search of a fresh start. It was this movement that supposedly sparked the rise of "Jacksonian Democracy." As Isenberg demonstrates, however, this was largely a cruel misnomer, given that Andrew Jackson himself had played a leading role in stiffening voting requirements in Tennessee before presiding over an era when the poor [End Page 104] "squatters" and "crackers" (109) actually found themselves further excluded and stymied by tighter restrictions on suffrage in a number of states.
Faced with mounting external hostility, slaveholders grew more intent on subjugating the rootless, disengaged white population lest they undermine the internal cohesion of Southern society. Surprisingly, Isenberg fails to note that late antebellum South Carolina's slaveholding oligarchs might, on no more than a whim, secure the arrest of any idle and propertyless white man for a variety of alleged offenses, including vagrancy, lewdness, or purchasing whiskey on the Sabbath.
Even so, in her first six chapters Isenberg offers an impressively seamless and cogent treatment of the "othering" of poor whites as a means of ridding the American success-and-virtue narrative of a foul, disquieting contradiction. Yet the strength of these chapters also reveals some weaknesses in her approach, one of these being that this is less a book about the people who constituted white trash than a detailed account of how others saw them. This is in part a simple function of the well-known paucity of primary sources left...