Book Review Club: White Trash by Nancy Isenberg #review #history #sociology

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

by Nancy Isenberg
History / Sociology
Audio book narrated by Kirsten Potter
White Trash cover

  • The New York Times bestseller
  • A New York Times Notable and Critics’ Top Book of 2016
  • Longlisted for the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction
  • One of NPR’s 10 Best Books Of 2016 Faced Tough Topics Head On
  • NPR’s Book Concierge Guide To 2016’s Great Reads
  • San Francisco Chronicle‘s Best of 2016: 100 recommended books
  • A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of 2016
  • Globe & Mail 100 Best of 2016
  • Goodreads Best History & Biography 2016

As you can see by the list of accolades above, this is an excellent book. I listened to the whole thing in my car and never lost interest. Isenberg starts in colonial America, explaining how England saw it’s colonies as dumping ground for what they called “waste people”. In other words, the landless poor. Instead of recognizing that these people were poorly fed, clothed, etc. the elites simply saw them as inferior. This attitude has persisted down to the present day. She implies that part of the relentless hounding of Bill Clinton may have been because he was seen as “white trash” and therefore, not good enough to be president, no matter his natural talents and abilities. Ditto for Sarah Palin, who was denigrated as a Wasilla hillbilly.

I found it very interesting to see American history presented through the prism of class. That’s not the way it’s taught in the schools, or at least not when I was a kid. Class structure has been used by the elites to divide the masses and stay in power throughout history. During the Civil War period, the planter elites had to give the Southern poor whites reasons to fight, when they really had nothing to gain by supporting the slave owners. So the planters denigrated Northern whites by calling them mudsills, dirt farmers and grease monkeys. (Personally I come from a long line of dirt farmers and grease monkeys.) Isenberg twice quotes Lyndon Johnson saying, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” Highly recommended.

Kirsten Potter has a pleasant voice, though some of her pronunciation choices were odd and jarring. Enough to be noticeable, but not enough for me to not recommend the audiobook.


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14 thoughts on “Book Review Club: White Trash by Nancy Isenberg #review #history #sociology

    • Well I did mention social class in my history classes though I never identified Sarah Palin as a hillbilly just an idiot. Also Ms. Hilton who most famously said “there is no class warfare. We won!”

      • Ray, glad to hear some teachers address the subject of class in America. Sadly, Paris Hilton is quite correct that the rich won the class war!

  1. I was a teacher and school administrator, always in low income areas. Class differences, prejudice and discriminations were all painfully evident. – Margy

  2. This book has certainly been getting a lot of attention due to the political climate. I’m interested in class issues and included teens living in mobile home centers in my realistic YA novel set in Maine. The only reason I’m reluctant to read this book was that I heard that the author claims that being a poor white indentured servant was worse than being a black slave. Anyway, I appreciated your review.

    • I don’t recall her saying that about the indentured servants, though their lives were no picnics either. I guess the difference might have been that slaves represented more of a monetary investment to the planter class than indentured servants, but the elites treated everyone below them with depraved indifference if not outright brutality.

  3. This sounds really good, Linda. And I’m always telling myself to broaden the old horizons and read/listen to more nonfiction. And that Lyndon Johnson quotation is scary. Thanks for reviewing!

  4. Great review! I’ve had my eye on this book so I’m glad to hear that you liked it. Was it quite dense? I have the worst problem trying to listen to nonfiction – I just get too distracted and don’t retain the information – so if it’s a dense read I might skip the audio and pick up the physical version.

    • Tanya, I didn’t find it particularly dense, and I enjoyed listening to it. You might try downloading a sample and see what you think.

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