The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
The New York Times bestseller
A New York Times Notable and Critics’ Top Book of 2016
Longlisted for the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction
One of NPR's 10 Best Books Of 2016 Faced Tough Topics Head On
NPR's Book Concierge Guide To 2016’s Great Reads
San Francisco Chronicle's Best of 2016: 100 recommended books
A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of 2016
Globe & Mail 100 Best of 2016
“Formidable and truth-dealing . . . necessary.” —The New York Times
“This eye-opening investigation into our country’s entrenched social hierarchy is acutely relevant.” —O Magazine
In her groundbreaking bestselling history of the class system in America, Nancy Isenberg upends history as we know it by taking on our comforting myths about equality and uncovering the crucial legacy of the ever-present, always embarrassing—if occasionally entertaining—poor white trash.
“When you turn an election into a three-ring circus, there’s always a chance that the dancing bear will win,” says Isenberg of the political climate surrounding Sarah Palin. And we recognize how right she is today. Yet the voters who boosted Trump all the way to the White House have been a permanent part of our American fabric, argues Isenberg.
The wretched and landless poor have existed from the time of the earliest British colonial settlement to today's hillbillies. They were alternately known as “waste people,” “offals,” “rubbish,” “lazy lubbers,” and “crackers.” By the 1850s, the downtrodden included so-called “clay eaters” and “sandhillers,” known for prematurely aged children distinguished by their yellowish skin, ragged clothing, and listless minds.
Surveying political rhetoric and policy, popular literature and scientific theories over four hundred years, Isenberg upends assumptions about America’s supposedly class-free society––where liberty and hard work were meant to ensure real social mobility. Poor whites were central to the rise of the Republican Party in the early nineteenth century, and the Civil War itself was fought over class issues nearly as much as it was fought over slavery. Reconstruction pitted poor white trash against newly freed slaves, which factored in the rise of eugenics–-a widely popular movement embraced by Theodore Roosevelt that targeted poor whites for sterilization. These poor were at the heart of New Deal reforms and LBJ’s Great Society; they haunt us in reality TV shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty. Marginalized as a class, white trash have always been at or near the center of major political debates over the character of the American identity.
We acknowledge racial injustice as an ugly stain on our nation’s history. With Isenberg’s landmark book, we will have to face the truth about the enduring, malevolent nature of class as well.
Isenberg (Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr), professor of history at Louisiana State University, tackles a topic rarely addressed by mainstream American writing on race and class as she skillfully demonstrates that "class defines how real people live." Opening with a myth-busting origin story, Isenberg reveals the ways English class divisions were transplanted and embraced in the colonies at the expense of the lower classes. Colonization and expansion were accomplished because elites believed the poor were valuable only for the labor they provided for the nation. Isenberg then shows how words such as squatter, cracker, and white trash are rooted in public discussions over politics and land. Eugenics entered the conversation in an early 20th-century effort to breed out misfits and undesirables, and the Great Depression forced reevaluations of poverty and what it meant to be a "poor white" in the 1930s. In the book's final section, a delectable mixture of political and popular culture, Isenberg analyzes the "white trash" makeover of the late 20th century thanks to movies such as Smokey and the Bandit, politicians Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's televangelism. A Marxist analysis of the lumpenproletariat this is not, but Isenberg's expertise particularly shines in the examinations of early America, and every chapter is riveting. Illus.
The conversation this country needs to have won't happen until we know what is being heard. This book is a good start.
Missing The Point
Several reviews here seem to be from people this book is written about...under-educated, frustrated/self-conscious white people. They refuse to see that the people they're voting for are passing laws detrimental to them or not funding their communities to ensure a solid education for their children. God & Guns are not going to help them and they're in an endless cycle of diminishing returns. So, they have nothing else to do but hate brown skinned people and have contempt for multi-cultural urbanites. Sad.
Book on point
People should stop being sensitive to truth. And falsifying their rate never reading the book.
Class based society is manipulation: wealthy, political abusers to control outcomes. British hands are very dirty- giving 'race' a definition and value during 16th century. And yet poor whites truly believe someone is taking something from them who's none-white forgetting prior to 'race' "the poor" stood the same.
This book should be read and appreciated.