What Nancy Isenberg shows in her history of “White Trash” is how prominent a role the white poor have played in American history

Historians in the News
tags: election 2016, Trump



... If Trump’s success has indeed been driven by the “nonurban, blue-collar” and “quite angry,” then he is only exploiting a demographic that is as integral to American identity as the Founding Fathers. “The white poor,” historian Nancy Isenberg writes in her new book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,

have always been with us in various guises, as the names they have been given across centuries attest: Waste people. Offscourings. Lubbers. Bogtrotters. Rascals. Rubbish. Squatters. Crackers. Clay-eaters. Tackies. Mudsills. Scalawags. Briar Hoppers. Hillbillies. Low-downers… They are renamed often, but they do not disappear. Our very identity as a nation, no matter what we tell ourselves, is intimately tied up with the dispossessed.


White Trash is a dizzying, dazzling four-hundred-year-long tour of American history from Pocahontas to Sarah Palin, seen from a vantage point that students of American history occupy all too rarely: that of the disposable citizens whose very presence disrupts what Isenberg calls our “national hagiography.”

The book’s first section is in many ways its most compelling. In it, Isenberg demonstrates that colonial America could never have existed without a large and forgotten class of “waste people”: the convicts and orphans and indentured servants who made America habitable for religious extremists and political idealists.

Isenberg’s argument is based on painstakingly supported factual analysis, and studded with narratives as horrific—and as disturbingly familiar—as that of Jamestown’s Jane Dickenson, the wife of an indentured servant. Captured by Native Americans in 1622, she was freed nearly a year later only to find that she owed an exorbitant sum to her dead husband’s master. Jane’s husband had not lived long enough to complete his period of indenture, so it was Jane’s job to work it off for him. The specter of indentured servitude itself—in which servants worked off the cost of their passage to the colonies on arrival—is chillingly familiar in an America where debt can follow us across national borders, through the decades, and even beyond the grave.          

Yet perhaps even more illuminating is Isenberg’s conception of the role America played in the British imagination. From the beginning, Isenberg shows us, America was, to many Britons, not a “Citty upon a Hill” or a “Holy Experiment,” but a cesspool. “During the 1600s,” Isenberg writes, “Far from being ranked as valued British subjects, the great majority of early colonists were classified as surplus population and expendable ‘rubbish.’” When it came to disposing of the “rubbish” class, the theory went that:

Either nature would reduce the burden of the poor through food shortages, starvation, and disease, or, drawn into crime, they might end up on the gallows. Finally, some would be impressed by force or lured by bounties to fight and die in foreign wars, or else be shipped off to the colonies… Once there, it was hoped, the drones would be energized as worker bees.


Before we had a government or even a national identity, we had a foundation of disposable Americans who could best play their mandated role in society by either working or dying. But what do we do with those perverse individuals who refuse to do either? What do we do with those Americans who can neither be “energized as worker bees,” nor relied upon to relieve their country of the burden of providing for them? ...




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