- White Trash AnxietyClass, Race, Edgar Allan Poe, and Arthur Gordon Pym
In a much-quoted 1827 letter to foster father John Allan, Edgar Allan Poe angrily lashed out at the perceived injustices he suffered at Allan’s hands: Edgar was “to be subjected to the whims and caprice, not only of your white family, but the complete authority of the blacks—these grievances I could not submit to; and I am gone.”1 Over the last half century and particularly since 1992, when Toni Morrison’s groundbreaking Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination instigated an explosion of studies, critics have examined this and the few other appearances of Black people in Poe’s fiction, letters, and journalism, variously weighing in on the function and meaning of race in Poe’s life and writing. While a few have sought to either demonstrate that Poe was a racist or defend him from charges of racism, most take a more nuanced approach.2 The essay collection Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race (2001) offers a number of important interventions on the subject. In this collection and elsewhere, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket has been the focus of considerations of race and racism in Poe’s work, given its appalling depictions of Black people and its fetishistic, oneiric treatment of whiteness.
For all their differences, these studies agree on one point: Poe’s work evidences a racial anxiety, and voices an unsettled and unsettling view of race as itself unsettled. I aim to expand this idea by exploring the intersection of race and class in Poe’s life and in Arthur Gordon Pym. Studies of race in Poe’s life and work tend to focus on blackness; racial whiteness is less studied, often appearing only as the opposite of blackness. However, the social reality of race during Poe’s lifetime was more complex than a black-white binary might suggest. As Nancy Isenberg in White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in [End Page 119] America and Shannon Sullivan in Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism have recently demonstrated, the bottom rung of social status among whites has long been associated with trash—to the degree that across the history of the United States, even their racial status as white has continuously been challenged.3 Considered a distinct breed during the nineteenth century, the social and familial practices of white trash were distinct enough that middle-class and elite whites implicitly and explicitly disavowed even a shared biology with them. Those identified as white trash are associated with Black people in terms of class, and the idea of white trash functions to safeguard middle-class whites against various so-called contaminants and to consolidate whiteness as middle class. Race and class intersected in the United States during Poe’s lifetime in a way that destabilized each, producing anxiety on Poe’s part about the possibility of slippage from middle class to trash and thus, I argue, even from one race to another.
Originating in the study of law, intersectionality investigates how power structures function to discriminate based on more than one social category, such as race, class, or gender. Such “compound discrimination” against some, as Kimberlé Crenshaw puts it, confirms privilege and social power for others.4 Thus, using the term “intersectionality” in reference to any white male experience, especially during the mid-nineteenth century in the United States, may appear absurd. I propose here, however, that race and class intersect in Poe’s life and work in ways that illuminate both, particularly if we look at the history of white trash. While whiteness alone does privilege whites over people of color, I argue that whiteness is “not white” when coupled with the lowest of class positions, that the intersection of class with a supposedly secure racial position in fact dislodges that racial privilege.5 I am not suggesting that class and race collapse into each other; as Sullivan explains, “The tendency of middle-class white people to distance themselves from white trash to maintain their whiteness might seem to make class reducible to race,” but...