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Book: White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg
Publication date: 2016
Summary: The early part of this book covers the history when American colonists were British subjects, so I summarized that in my British Isles Friday post last week. Suffice it to say that American founding myths about who came to this country and why are flat-out wrong and disguise the classist society that we were from the very beginning.
Picking up the story from 1776…
Historical mythmaking is made possible only by forgetting. We have to begin, then, with the first refusal to face reality: most colonizing schemes that took root in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British America were built on privilege and subordination, not any kind of proto-democracy. The generation of 1776 certainly underplayed that fact. And all subsequent generations took their cue from the nation’s founders. p. 5
Thomas Jefferson’s hypocrisy around slavery has been well-documented in recent histories. His idealism about the poor out-stripped his reality in similar ways. He imagined gentleman farmers, like himself, setting a fine example for yeoman farmers who would be happy with their lot in life on fifty-acre plots. He ignored any one that didn’t fit one of those two molds, declaring in 1784 that there were no beggars in the United States “from one end to another of the continent,” while his home state of Virginia was working on a bill to round up all the vagrants.
Thoughts: White Trash was our book club selection for October. We were surprised by many things.
How much Donald Trump’s rhetoric sounds like Andrew Jackson’s, our first presidential candidate who presented himself as the representative of the plain-speaking backwoods man.
How mainstream eugenics was. I knew the notion of controlled breeding of humans existed in the US, but I thought it was a marginal idea. Nope. Theodore Roosevelt was one of many proponents. The idea wasn’t fully debunked until it became attached to Nazism.
How there was one time in our history when the poor were much less likely to be judged and called names, the Great Depression:
The lines separating the poor from the working and middle classes seemed more permeable. The poor were simply men and women without jobs, and those who still had gainful employment sensed that they were at risk of experiencing the same fate. p. 210
I hoped, for the sake of my Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life project, that White Trash would help me understand the sort of people who support Donald Trump. I’m not sure that I got all that I wanted, but, as one of our book club members pointed out, often the first step to understanding is to learn the history and separate it from the myth.
White Trash reminded me of some things I’d already figured out and gave me some background to help me remember them. An early term for the rural poor was “squatter.” The term described people who set up rough households in the unoccupied hinterlands of the expanding United States. The land wasn’t theirs which led to two logical outcomes:
- The housing was substandard because they were likely to be chased off.
- They had a profound distrust of outsiders and the government who were likely to do the chasing off.
It’s hardly surprising if their descendants exhibit a bone-deep distrust of slick-talking intellectuals.
Appeal: A great book for anyone who wants to understand the reality of American history instead of just the stories we tell to children.
Have you read this book? What did you think?