Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Invisible people

After hearing the historian Nancy Isenberg do several radio interviews, I very much wanted to like White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. I usually try not to critique books on the basis that the author wrote the book she wanted to write as opposed to the book I thought she should write. But this one diverged so much from my expectations as to leave me nonplussed.

You see, in this book the "white trash" -- poor whites -- seem almost invisible. The first three centuries of U.S history are treated as a catalogue of how elites named, shamed, insulted and exploited, before tossing away, the white unfortunates who populated the continent elites were seeking to appropriate. It's a foul story -- but where are these "white trash" people in it? How did they live? How did they respond to insult? Did they rebel? I know enough history to know they did, more than a few times; for example, Isenberg alludes to Shay's Rebellion in the early days of the Republic, but does not explicate. Did these outbreaks matter? You won't find out here.

The picture of the "white trash" becomes more lively when Isenberg gets to New Deal programs which actually made some effort to improve their circumstances. Perhaps the troupes of social workers and artists who ventured into situations of terrible poverty in that era finally created accessible documentation that is largely absent for earlier times. Further into the 20th century, the "white trash" label became associated with the South -- and became a catch all for racial bigotry and backwardness. And so it remains today, both flaunted and shunned in cultural products like the TV show "Duck Dynasty."

And yet, and yet -- where was and is the agency of people so long exploited and discarded? I don't believe they didn't push back against their condition even if we might not recognize the forms that push back assumed. Did they develop their own religiosity? Create their own populism or socialism? Unite in what might look from outside like marauding outlaw bands but which from inside served to protect people without the privilege of access to law? Isenberg's "white trash" are people -- and people may be crushed for awhile, but they find ways to get back at "elites." (No -- I am not blaming "white trash" for the recent election -- just pointing to historical patterns.)
This is another book I "read" by ear, listening as I ran. This was not a good way to absorb it. The print version is illustrated with contemporary wood cuts, engravings, and photos that round out the story in the text. Perhaps I would have had less of sense that so much was missing if I'd encountered these as I read.

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