Nancy Isenberg
author of WHITE TRASH
Poor Americans have existed from the time of the earliest British colonial settlement. 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 400 years, in White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Nancy 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. “A riveting thesis supported by staggering research,” our reviewer writes in a starred review.


A rigorously researched study of the entrenched system of racial classification that dispels many myths about American national identity.

In this impressive work of social history, Isenberg (American History/Louisiana State Univ.; Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, 2007, etc.) challenges head-on America’s “fable of class denial.” From the first indentured servants brought to Plymouth and Jamestown to the caricatured hillbillies of Duck Dynasty, the existence of “waste” people, or impoverished, ignorant, landless whites, has persistently run against convenient notions of the upstanding American founder—i.e., moral, hardworking “entrepreneurial stewards of the exploitable land.” Dumped on the Colonies, the vagrant, often criminal poor from England and elsewhere were considered expendable and often exploited. As a key to the story, Isenberg looks at the early settlement of North Carolina, which became a “renegade territory, a swampy refuge for the poor and landless,” situated between elite Virginians and slaveholding “upstart” South Carolinians. Contrary to the mythmaking of the exceptional early American in writings by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson, based on theories of “good breeding” and yeomanry, a whole class of common people grew up as a byproduct of the slaveholding states, living on the margins of the plantations: dirt-poor Southerners (literally “clay-eaters”) who were considered lazy and racially degenerate. Moreover, the enormous new swaths of Western land were largely populated by a new class of “squatters” or “crackers,” considered “mangy varmints infesting the land” and represented by the first Westerner elected president, Andrew Jackson. Isenberg examines some surprising sources of these early stereotypes of white trash, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), in which the author “described poor whites as a degenerate class, prone to crime, immorality, and ignorance.” From the eugenics movement to the rise of the proud redneck, Isenberg portrays a very real and significant history of class privilege in the United States.

A riveting thesis supported by staggering research. 

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