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White Trash
The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
Nancy Isenberg
read on November 13, 2017

Wow this was a boring book. I didn't finish. Made it to just a few hours away but couldn't get to the finish line. I found myself not reading at all, avoiding starting anything else, but also avoiding wrapping this one up, which means that it's time to just call it quits.

This book was certainly informative, but sometimes just felt like too much of a lecture. Isenberg spends the first few chapters just building a case that the US was not originally a classless society. She talks about the settlers, and how they were pretty much the dregs of English society sent to their deaths, and how even in the US from the beginning there was very much a lower class. But, how does that not go without saying? Does anyone think that 18th century America was a classless utopia? Does anyone think that Thanksgiving was really a peaceful dinner between Natives and settlers? Isenberg spends so much time dispelling these myths - and the whole time I'm just shouting "duh in my head.

Other notes.

  • Interesting review of class structure during different times, but little focus on specific structural barriers to class mobility. To me the most interesting question is WHY can't the poor or the lower class change their status? To me the American founding myth wasn't ever really one of classlessness in an egalitarian way - but classlessness in an impermanent way. That in the US class doesn't exist precisely because it is not a permanent classification, but rather, a temporary station. Rags to riches, etc. Isenberg spent her time focusing on the existence of classes, and the disparity between them, but little time on why they are solid lines, rather than dotted.
  • Where Isenberg DID comment on class permanence was interesting. There was some discussion of pedigree and breeding. Class came to be seen as a bloodline issue. Particularly in late 1800's, lower classes weren't only economically separated, but believed to just be a worse kind of people. (E.g. mud-eaters).
    • This actually morphs into a national hysteria that I wasn't really aware of before. In late 1800's, early 1900's, pedigree and eugenics were highly popular and academically justified. See SCOTUS Buck vs Bell. This really gives some additional context into global mindset prior to WW1/2.

Author Bio:

Nancy G. Isenberg is an American historian, and T. Harry Williams Professor of history at Louisiana State University.