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White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016)

by Nancy Isenberg

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2,040767,246 (3.63)91
"A history of the class system in America from the colonial era to the present illuminates the crucial legacy of the underprivileged white demographic, citing the pivotal contributions of lower-class white workers in wartime, social policy, and the rise of the Republican Party,"--NoveList.

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English (74)  Catalan (1)  All languages (75)
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eye-opening ( )
  zizabeph | May 7, 2023 |
Nancy Isenberg's "White Trash" is an outstanding, albeit depressing, example of the low standards which have become the rule in contemporary popular sociology. In a mere (?) 480 pages, she manages to perpetuate blatant racism; to administer urgent care on the never-quite-dead Marxist mythos of class warfare; and to demonstrate an inability to correctly (or even coherently) interpret historical trends. In a word, the book is a mess. To be fair, however, it is not entirely without value.

First, the racism. No less an authority than Wikipedia (which, sadly, is becoming the go-to "encyclopedia" for millennials and those of their elders who are too lazy to do proper research) immediately and unequivocally identifies "white trash" as an inescapably racist term, and clearly explains why this is so. Isenberg also uses the term "cracker" freely throughout her book, although she certainly didn't invent the term: it was in use in Elizabethan times, and Webster's unsurpassed 1828 dictionary defines a "cracker" as "a noisy boasting fellow." (Of course, by this definition, there are Asian and African "crackers" too, but that's not the contemporary usage. We all know who employs the term, although it's not particularly hurtful.) Isenberg's comfort with the word raises an interesting question: Would she write a volume of African-American history and call it "Nigger?" I think not; but in 1964, the "militant" comedian Dick Gregory published an autobiography with exactly that title. Times change, and I doubt that this would be permissible today. The point is that Isenberg, like so many "scholars," is inconsistent and a hypocrite. Nothing new about that. . . .

As for class warfare (a concept popularized, though not invented, by Marx and Engels), Isenberg takes it as an article of faith: citing pejorative references to the poor and uneducated of society by Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and many others, class distinctions and conflicts are the very heart of the book. Isenberg is certainly no Marxist (his name doesn't even appear in the index), but like most 20th and 21st century "scholars," she has adopted some of his concepts unashamedly. Fair enough: even Marx was right some of the time. But "class warfare" is hogwash.

Isenberg's book is written for a popular audience, and is very readable; and, in fairness, she does not claim to be among the great historians. She peppers the work (predictably) with references to such "trash" people as Andrew Jackson, Elvis Presley, Bill Clinton, Dolly Parton, Jimmy Carter, and the other "usual suspects." She discusses Sarah Palin, of course, but to her credit, she does not snicker or sneer at any of these people. She simply uses them as examples of the typical American: i.e., trash. Written in early 2016, she only makes two passing references to Donald Trump; had she waited a year, I'm sure he would have rated an entire chapter.

Isenberg's book, however, is important and valuable for one very significant reason. My fellow Christians, and the conservatives with whom I frequently consort, constantly assert that America is "a Christian nation," founded by earnest pilgrims seeking nothing more than religious freedom. That is simply not true. As she demonstrates, America — exactly like Australia — was founded and regarded as a trash-bin for the lame, the halt, the lawless dregs of British society. It was one of Great Britain's wastebaskets. Yes indeed, there were Christian pilgrims, and they were indeed fleeing the Catholic and Calvinist tyrannies of Europe; but they were not the "founders" of America. The men (and women) who created this nation were, in the main, hard-nosed, secular deists, with a few atheists and Christians thrown into the mix. And the American "revolution" was not achieved by the common man, the average farmer or shopkeeper; the vast majority of "Americans" were loyal to Great Britain. Isenberg doesn't discuss this loyalty, but she gives the lie to the myth of America's "Christian founders."

A mildly interesting book, but not recommended. ( )
  WilliamMelden | Jan 26, 2023 |
Some good history of poor people in America (concentrating on poor whites) but the first and last chapters were putrid with lefty post-modernism. Some of that was in the rest of the book as well, but it didn't overwhelm the interesting and not frequently told history. ( )
  steve02476 | Jan 3, 2023 |
This book has a click bait title and is more of a dense history book than the anthropological study the title suggests. It could also use a good editor. Not going to spend weeks and weeks slogging through this one.
  eringill | Dec 25, 2022 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Nancy Isenbergprimary authorall editionscalculated
Belanger, FrancescaDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Miceli, JayaCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Potter, KirstenNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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One of the most memorable films of all time is To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), a classic portrait of the legacy of slavery and racial segregation in the South.
We know what class is.
In the minds of literate English men and women, as colonization began in the 1500s, North America was an uncertain world inhabited by monstrous creatures, a blank territory skirted by mountains of gold.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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"A history of the class system in America from the colonial era to the present illuminates the crucial legacy of the underprivileged white demographic, citing the pivotal contributions of lower-class white workers in wartime, social policy, and the rise of the Republican Party,"--NoveList.

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Book description
Introduction: Fables we forget by

Part I: To begin the world anew.
Chapter 1. Taking out the trash : waste people in the New World ; Chapter 2. John Locke's Lubberland : the settlements of Carolina and Georgia ; Chapter 3. Benjamin Franklin's American breed : the demographics of mediocrity ; Chapter 4. Thomas Jefferson's rubbish : a curious topography of class ; Chapter 5. Andrew Jackson's cracker country : the squatter as common man

Part II. Degeneration of the American Breed.
Chapter 6. Pedigree and poor white trash : bad blood, half-breeds and clay-eaters ; Chapter 7. Cowards, Poltroons, and mudsills : Civil War as class warfare ; Chapter 8. Thoroughbreds and scalawags : bloodlines and bastard stock in the age of eugenics ; Chapter 9. Forgotten men and poor folk : downward mobility and the Great Depression ; Chapter 10. The cult of the country boy : Elvis Presley, Andy Griffith, and LBJ's Great Society

Part III. The white trash makeover.
Chapter 11. Redneck roots : Deliverance, Billy Beer, and Tammy Faye ; Chapter 12. Outing Rednecks : slumming, Slick Willie, and Sarah Palin

Epilogue: America's strange breed : the long legacy of white trash.
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