Nancy Isenberg's White Trash.
21 September 2016
Okay, I did not get through all of Nancy Isenberg's White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. It's 321 dense pages long, plus notes, for the love of all that's holy. To get through that much serious nonfiction I would need at least another 321 years.
But I did read the first 100 pages thoroughly, and then skimmed most of the book from page 200 on. And I really, really liked it. It's a totally different look at America's history, and provides a nice "look behind the curtains" that are the ruling mythologies of our American experience. We're exceptional? Well, no, not really, a lot of our first settlers ended up here because other countries were looking to dump their poor and challenging citizens somewhere else. All our founders were here for the noble goal of religious freedom? Again, no. See the answer above. The histories of the colonies and how they came about, and the more targeted look at our Founding Fathers' writings (from Thomas Jefferson to Ben Franklin, along with a number of other not-so-well-known names), were quite detailed (and a little dry, sometimes) but still: v. v. interesting.
The latter half of the book is more about "white trash" and poor whites in modern history, including chapters about enforced sterilization and eugenics, Elvis Presley, Lyndon B. Johnson, integration, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. There was a LOT here to think about, in terms of race, economics, and social class.
So. Here's a bit from the introduction:
"In the most literal terms, as we shall see, British colonists promoted a dual agenda: one involved reducing poverty back in England, and the other called for transporting the idle and unproductive to the New World. After settlement, colonial outposts exploited their unfree laborers (indentured servants, slaves, and children) and saw such expendable classes as human waste. The poor, the waste, did not disappear, and by the early eighteenth century they were seen as a permanent breed. This way of classifying human failure took hold in the United States. Every era in the continent's vaunted developmental story had its own taxonomy of waste people--unwanted and unsalvageable. Each era had its own means of distancing its version of white trash from the mainstream ideal." (pp. 1-2.)
I don't read a lot of serious history and it shows; I wanted to give this one more time and attention. (Someone at the Atlantic did: here's their article.) If you're looking for some American history that is most definitely not "same old, same old," I would consider this one.