Review: ‘White Trash’ by Nancy Isenberg

Daniel Villar finds this survey of white working class America wanting

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The white working class is back in vogue. Never since the great society, fifty years ago, when senators and presidents went to rural Appalachia to take photographs with old miners with black lung and brown teeth, has the media cared so much about the white working class. Trump hails them for his victory. Leftist remnants are trying to get the Democratic Party to pivot towards the white working class, while the alt-right celebrates them as a nationalist constituency.

So you would think in the middle of this a scholarly account of an often forgotten group in American politics would give insight into the current political climate.

Sadly Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash is a shoddily written screed that repeats the same story over and over—a story anyone who has spent more than fifteen minutes looking at American culture could have already told you, namely, that rich people look down at poor people and mock them.

You might think I am being too uncharitable to the book. Surely a work published by a professor of American history at Louisiana State University, would have a more nuanced thesis than “rich white folks make a mockery of poor white folk”. Yet that is exactly the entire thesis. Never is there any attempt at analysis of poor white culture, or at the role poor whites had in shaping their own destiny (or lack thereof). Indeed,
the title would be more accurate if it read Rich Whites, because it is they, not White Trash, who are at all times at the centre of the book.

Isenberg goes chronologically in her whirlwind tour of American history, starting with how Richard Hakluyt said, in 1584, that any English North American colonies must be made of the wretches and waste of England. Hakluyt comes up repeatedly in the course of the book—according to Isenberg, others influenced by thinking include Mitt Romney, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson.

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In any such whirlwind tour of history, naturally details would be lost and simplifications made in order to fit all the necessary information into one book. However, Isenberg is too willing to simplify and omit in order to fit her facile thesis within the 321 pages of her book. She focuses nearly entirely on the south—a naïve reader could be forgiven for thinking that poor whites don’t exist north of the Potomac River.

She makes no mention of white working class movements such as the Workingman’s Party of California, which was the main impetus of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and makes scarce a mention of major figures in the late 19th century Populist movement. And as for the snobs who disrespected the working class, Isenberg doesn’t even mention the man who did more than anyone else to shape how educated Americans viewed their poorly educated compatriots, H.L. Mencken. For Isenberg, every white is an Anglo Saxon, and that’s good enough for her. But aren’t the Irish immigrants of 1840, the Italians of 1890, and the Russians of 1920 also white workers? Why are they not included in this volume?

This book is a missed opportunity. Now, as the white working class is rising in revolt against the political and cultural system which has covered America for the past generation, it is imperative for someone to write a comprehensive history of ‘white trash’ as white working class. Not through our educated liberal eyes, but through their own eyes. This book can give you some anachronistic insults for them, and little else.