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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