Nancy Isenberg, White Trash (2016)
J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy (2016)
This is part 5 in an ongoing series exploring books that address the current political, social, and economic situation in the US. Part 1: The Unwinding Part 2: Dark Money Part 3: Strangers In Their Own Land Part 4: Listen, Liberal
Also posted as part of Nonfiction November, hosted by JulzReads, Sarah’s Book Shelves, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Doing Dewey, and yours truly. Please visit these blogs for tons of wonderful nonfiction reviews, discussions, and more!
White Trash is subtitled “The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,” which I find misleading. This is not primarily an overall history of class structures and conflicts throughout the entire United States, but a study of the origins and development of a particular group generated by a peculiar intersection of ethnicity, economics, and geography. Variously called white trash, rednecks, hillbillies, mudsills, and other derogatory names, this distinctively Southern underclass is an uncomfortable part of our national heritage. Through the years it has been reviled or celebrated, ignored or grotesquely exaggerated, but never integrated into our American self-image in a constructive way.
So, overlooking the grandiose subtitle, what does the book have to say about where this group came from and how it has developed? Starting with the early days of European settlement, it’s an absorbing and appalling chronicle of how our country was seen in part as a repository for the “waste people” of Europe, who were relegated to substandard, badly managed land and grew into their own caste alongside the institution of slavery. Shadowing the imported black race was a home-grown white race of uncivilized, illiterate, violent, promiscuous, lazy throwbacks, who had to be kept down so that the more palatable elements in American society could rise to the top.
The whole image of human waste, going along with the laying waste of the environment, rang true to me as something that we need to face up to right now. The so-called New World was once seen as a limitless field for exploitation, where people and resources could be discarded or pushed aside in order to create new possibilities for a certain portion of the population. But as we now know, our world cannot be exploited indefinitely, and human waste is as problematic as any other. The illusion of the “classless society,” Isenberg argues, was actually a way for those in power to mask their fear of class mobility and solidify structures that benefited them. Regarding the rural poor as a race apart was key to keeping them in their place.
An eye-opening point, which Isenberg traces in detail from its origins at the very beginning of colonization, is that the antislavery movement was strongly founded in the observation that slavery was pushing out and paralyzing the white laboring class. For many abolitionists, the goal was not to uphold the human rights of black people, but to give work back to the white underclass who were squeezed out of the Southern aristocracy. They, in turn, fought back against what they saw as a degenerate Northern rabble who would upend the social hierarchy within their own race. They argued that slavery at least provided a class above which poor whites could feel superior, and thus satisfied with their lot at the bottom of the (white) social ladder. Such cruelly tangled thinking is incredibly difficult to root out of the American soul, it seems.
Another striking section was about the eugenics movement that flourished here only a century ago. The solution to the problem of America’s “strange breed” was to be found in better breeding, in people of good blood choosing the right mates and in sterilization or even euthanasia of the bad seeds. Theodore Roosevelt was a strong supporter of eugenics, among many other prominent voices. Though we Americans like to feel we are on moral high ground compared to the Nazis, it’s important to realize that with a little push over the edge into mass hysteria, there could have been a kind of Holocaust here in the middle of the last century. There still could, as it feels as though we are treading very close to that edge right now, and any number of groups could be targeted.
Unfortunately, soon after this the final part of the book disintegrated into a confused muddle of reflections on trailer parks, Elvis Presley, LBJ, Dolly Parton, Deliverance, Sarah Palin, and other topics without a clear focus or conclusion. Perhaps that is not inappropriate, as there is certainly no way to wrap up this problematic segment of society in a neat intellectual package. But it proved something of a letdown after some of the earlier insights.
Isenberg herself starts to seem ambivalent in her view of the actual human beings behind the “white trash” label, distancing herself from them by only discussing public figures and pop culture phenomena, rather than ever actually talking to real people. In her over-the-top descriptions there is a certain amount of disgust and repugnance, even as she tries to point our attention toward an unjustly neglected population. Thus she demonstrates the very contradictions that have plagued our country from the start, the tension between fascination and repulsion that has prevented any meaningful change from taking place. Where do we find the compassion and true humanity to bridge the gap, and fully encompass this part of our being?
For this endeavor, a first-person account like J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy can be a help. Vance grew up in Ohio, but his family was from Kentucky and retained strong emotional and cultural ties there. Vance movingly depicts his troubled upbringing with an unstable mother, the vicious cycle of poverty, abuse, and hopelessness, and the saving grace found through the love of his grandmother. “Mamaw” is an unforgettable personality, tremendously flawed but gloriously human. Her power to make a difference in her grandson’s life shows how love can bring transformation into the most unlikely places.
Vance is less successful when he tries to interject some political and historical commentary into the narrative. He often seems underinformed, and at times harmfully naive — as when he argues that his conservative social group were repelled by President Obama not because of his race, but because Obama was an Ivy League graduate who “didn’t talk like us.” (I doubt they would have quite the same reaction to a white person with the same credentials; antagonism aroused by people of color gaining education and social status is a very pervasive feature of racism.)
Though his early school career was difficult, after a stint in the Marine Corps Vance became a lawyer and thus made it into the promised land of the rich. Some find this an inspiring trajectory, but I had mixed feelings about it. Why is it that everyone who wants to “make it” has to become a lawyer? Vance doesn’t seem to have any interest in the field other than its money-making potential, and his description of his time in law school focuses mainly on how he had to negotiate the social hurdles of being with an elite population for the first time, bluffing his way through until he gained the knowledge and skills he lacked. Very likely there’s more to his inner life that he didn’t express, and I don’t want to unfairly denigrate his very real achievement, but as presented in the book there was something hollow about it.
A conversation between Nancy Isenberg and J.D. Vance would certainly be interesting, and maybe someday that will happen. In the meantime, both books are worth reading, especially in tandem. In different ways, each sheds light on a part of our national character that is hard to face, but dangerous to ignore.