Trying to Understand Part 5: White Trash and Hillbilly Elegy

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.



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Trying to Understand Part 1: The Unwinding

George Packer, The Unwinding (2013)

This post is part of a series based around the New York Times’s list of “books to understand Trump’s win.” Rachel of Hibernator’s Library suggested doing a readalong of these six books, and I thought it was a great idea. So did several other people, and I hope that we’ll see some interesting and enlightening discussions coming out of this dark time.

Right at the outset I would like to say that my purpose is much larger than just understanding a single election or political movement. Forces are at work that are pushing humanity in directions that are ultimately self-destructive, and we need to stand up against them. How did we come to this point, and where do we go from here? How can we penetrate through the delusions that pit us against one another? How do we see clearly the sickness that lives within our culture and each one of us, and learn to speak a language that heals rather than divides? Voters of all persuasions are welcome here, as long as the discussion can be civil.

The first book on the list was The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer, which tells the story of disintegrating social, political and economic structures in America from the 1970s to today. It’s a gigantic and unwieldy topic, but Packer deals with it brilliantly, focusing on a few individuals and places whose stories encapsulate common experiences of decay, hope, disillusionment, betrayal, and rebellion. There’s a lawyer and sometime Washington politico, a working-class single mother from the Rust Belt, and a “think-and-grow-rich” entrepreneur — ordinary people whose hopes and mistakes and achievements and failures can cause us to think about the shape of our own lives and how it fits into the biography of our country as a whole.

We also spend some time in Tampa, Florida, where rampant real estate speculation and banking fraud are destroying a city; in Silicon Valley, where eccentric, antisocial tech millionaires plot how to save their own skins while playing the world like a video game; and on Wall Street, where the initially inspiring Occupy movement fizzles to a disappointing end. Interspersed with these ongoing narratives are brief profiles of prominent figures — Newt Gingrich, Sam Walton, and Oprah, for example — who bring out key aspects of American life during this period. Unlike the more lengthy portraits, through which we get to know the subjects from the inside, these are biting and critical, which brings a jolt of piquancy that helps to enliven the complex and lengthy narrative (though sometimes they seem a bit unfair).

The Unwinding was all the more fascinating to me because it covers pretty much exactly the span of my own life. During this time boredom and disillusionment have caused me to avoid politics and economics as much as possible, with the result that I’m massively ignorant in these realms. It’s embarrassing to admit how many people and events in this book I knew next to nothing about, but Packer’s storytelling method made learning about them effortless. I’m still not sure what I can personally do to counteract huge disasters like the housing bubble or the corrosive influence of big money in Washington, but knowledge is perhaps the first step to action. Certainly, remaining in ignorance can’t do much good.

Packer’s narrative is so well-constructed, and feels so sweeping and comprehensive, that it’s easy to see it as the definitive word on the subject. But however much one puts into a book like this there’s still even more that has to be left out. Packer’s focus was very much on money, on the quest for dollars as the American dream. Some of his people have lots of money and are showered with even more, some lose the little they have, some go through cycles of riches and bankruptcy, but money is always there, defining and shaping their experience. Whether they are haves or have-nots, their ideals are cramped by it, their higher purpose is lamed by it.

This made me realize that to the extent that money is all we Americans really care about, Trump is actually the perfect president for us. He is a golden idol, a god for his supporters, a fetish that they touch in the hope that they will acquire what he has — though even if they became billionaires overnight it would never be enough, for this is a lust that feeds on itself. Those of more moderate or even progressive views are not immune from it either. Even if we campaign for a socialist utopia, with free health care and higher education for all, isn’t it still worldly comfort and material prosperity that we seek?

But what is the deeper meaning of this obsession? What is the real hunger that is masked and obscured by it? What do we truly value, and how do we stop mistaking the symbol for the thing? Packer doesn’t overtly touch these questions, but I think we have to start asking them, or our nation will continue to cannibalize itself and go on to devour the world. We cannot look wistfully back to the age of postwar middle-class prosperity, as Packer tends to do — that growth was built on the spoils of war and the rape of our natural resources, a Ponzi scheme that cannot continue indefinitely. America cannot be great “again” if we’re always looking back to a golden age that never really was. We have to move forward into something truly new, which is what terrifies those who cling to the old order of things.

But as a start, it’s good to look with clear eyes at where we’ve been, and for me reading The Unwinding was a first step on that path. I hope you will read it too, and please let me know your own thoughts.


New Release Review: Hidden Figures

Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures (2016)

hidden-figures-pb-cover-copySo, if you’re simply wondering whether I think this book is worth reading, and you’re interested in women’s history, civil rights, U.S. history, the space program, math, or computer science (which I should think covers most of us), I will save you some valuable reading time and say: yes, it is. Go get a copy of this book pronto, and don’t just rely on watching the movie. You’re going to want to know the facts behind the film.

But if that’s not enough for you, here’s my more detailed description and response: Hidden Figures tells the fascinating story of a group of “colored computers,” black women employed to do essential mathematical tasks in the development of air and space technology. During World War II, when employment opportunities were of necessity stretched beyond their normal limits, these brilliant, talented women got a toe in the door of the burgeoning military economy, even though they were segregated and often overlooked and undervalued. Shetterly focuses on four of them, though she believes that there were many more than even the available historical record shows. The story of their bravery, determination, and intelligence makes for some compelling and inspiring reading, as in our world today it becomes clear that the ugly prejudice that they had to fight against has by no means been conquered.

Not just a peek into an obscure, forgotten corner of our history, this is a subject that touches on so many important and relevant topics that it’s really essential for anyone who wants to know where we came from and where we are going. Shetterly expertly interweaves the personal stories of the women into the larger picture of social and technological change that took place during their era, an enormous upheaval that we still have to wrestle with. She didn’t conduct her research just in dusty archival records; she actually knew some of the women growing up, as her parents moved within some of the same circles, and this helps bring them closer to us.

tlc logoIn spite of that personal connection, Shetterly generally writes in a calm, measured third-person style, describing rather than dramatizing the incidents of her narrative, though she occasionally inserts some stirring and passionate commentary. She also has a tendency to use flowery similes that I found unnecessary and distracting, but mercifully these were few and far between. It’s going to be interesting to see how the book is turned into a film, since there is almost no dialogue given; much will have to be invented. For that reason, if you’re interested in historical accuracy I definitely recommend the book to ground you in reality, although the dramatic potential of the story on screen is certainly irresistible.

However you experience it, Hidden Figures is a story that definitely deserves to come to light. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

Official publisher link from HarperCollins

Copy gratefully received for review from TLC Book Tours – click here for more stops on the tour



New Release Review: New England Bound

Wendy Warren, New England Bound (2016)

NewEnglandBoundLGNew England likes to position itself as the cradle of liberty, home of many of the figures behind American independence from Britain, as well as a land of freedom in opposition to the slave-owning South. But in this new study by historian Wendy Warren, we are given a very different view of the early days of the New England colonies, during which the bondage of African and Native American slaves formed an essential part of the economy and indeed of the identity of the region.

The evidence is scant and scattered, but Warren has painstakingly gone over probate records, lawsuits, sermons and other documents and assembled a picture of a land and people  “bound” up with the institution of slavery in multiple ways. Though the proportion of chattel slaves in seventeenth-century New England was relatively low, with their numbers and mode of employment never so dramatic as on the large plantations of the South, they were widely used as household labor and fully accepted even by the most piously Puritan of colonists. The extent of colonial involvement in the slave trade, however, is greatly magnified when one considers that New England was part of a wider Atlantic mercantile system for the English, supplying the West Indian sugar plantations and thus endorsing and enabling that most horrifically deadly form of slave labor.

It depended on that system, too, as the northern land was too poor to produce a cash crop out of itself. By sending goods and foodstuffs (often substandard or rotten items deemed adequate for slaves) to the rich planters who gained more profit by devoting all their time and land to growing sugar, members of the dominant merchant class of New England gained an essential market. They also began to feel their power as a key player in the English trading triangle, which may been the germ of the drive for independence.

The colonial impulse also required “unplanting and replanting” the native people who already inhabited the land the settlers wanted for their own needs. Some were forced into local servitude, but many others, too unruly for that purpose, were transported to serve elsewhere even as Africans were imported in the other direction. In one telling incident, a group of native Americans captured in King Philip’s War were sent abroad, except for an old man too decrepit to work. After some debate, his captors showed him mercy — by decapitating him rather than having him torn apart by dogs.

That is just one of the cruel stories that Warren has unearthed for us, illuminating a strange irony. Without intimate knowledge of the miserable state of slavery, without day-to-day intercourse with people treated as property and denied a will of their own, would the New England states have waved the banner of freedom so forcibly? The bloodstained origins of our vaunted rights and freedoms must not be overlooked, if we are to move forward into a truer form of justice.

According to the jacket publicity this book has been hailed by other historians as an important new contribution to the topic, and though I’m by no means an expert I see no reason to argue with them. The writing was sometimes a bit stiff and repetitive, perhaps showing its origins as a dissertation. But the arguments and the research backing them up are compelling, disturbing, and enlightening. Certainly, I’ll no longer be able to walk the Freedom Trail or sing songs of liberation without remembering the chains that our nation forged in its earliest days, and that are in many ways still binding us today.



In the Kingdom of Ice (Nonfiction November Review)

Hampton Sides, In the Kingdom of Ice (2014)


For my third and final Nonfiction November title (following One Summer: America 1927 and Empty Mansions), I thought it would be interesting to delve into American history once more. This time, upon recommendations by many including Books on the Table, I chose In the Kingdom of Ice, the story of an ill-starred polar expedition that set out to attempt to break through what was thought to be a ring of ice into a temperate, or even tropical “Open Polar Sea” — an idea that was firmly fixed in the nineteenth-century imagination, but had absolutely no basis in reality, as the expedition fatefully discovered.

When I got the book from the library and found 500 pages of densely-packed text, I was a bit daunted. But once I began reading, the pages flew by. The story was so compelling, and the writing so vivid, that I felt like I was there alongside the crew as they battled incredible odds to try to win their way back to civilization.  I was full of admiration for the brave, determined captain George De Long, who vowed “no man shall be left alone” through their terrible ordeal. Many of his comrades also showed amazing endurance and selflessness, while a few displayed a more unsavory side of humanity as they slid toward madness, melancholia, or just plain irritating everyone to death.

The land-bound characters were equally memorable, including the eccentric newspaper magnate who funded the voyage; De Long’s long-suffering wife, whose heartbreakingly poignant letters to her missing husband punctuate the text; and the brilliant but unbalanced armchair geographer whose misguided notions set the whole tragedy in motion.

The enormous amount of research that must have gone into this book is gracefully and even elegantly transformed into a seamless narrative. Quotations from journals and letters are integrated into the text, contributing to the “you are there” quality. The Arctic landscape comes to life in all its grandeur and horror, as the men move through its terrain and encounter its wildlife and people. There is much information to be gleaned, about post-Civil War American society and the scientific culture of the time in general as well as about polar exploration in particular, yet the reader never feels overwhelmed by scholarship or barraged by facts.

In short, In the Kingdom of Ice is a splendidly thrilling, moving, and thought-provoking journey of adventure, both outer and inner. I’m so glad to have discovered it.

Be sure to check out all the great posts being linked this month for Nonfiction November:

Week One: My Year in Nonfiction
Week Two: Be/Become/Ask the Expert
Week Three: Diversity and Nonfiction
Week Four: New to My TBR List


Empty Mansions (Nonfiction November Review)

Bill Dedman & Paul Clark Newell, Jr., Empty Mansions (2013)


Dedman Newell Huguette Clark

This is a story about money: about the winning of a great American fortune, its spending on acts of  generosity and selfishness, and its end in the hands of eager lawyers and rapacious relatives. It’s also the story of an enigmatic woman, Huguette Clark, who was worth $300 million yet chose to live the last twenty years of her long life in a simple hospital room, even though she owned several uninhabited, impeccably maintained properties. Who was this woman of unbelievable wealth and unusually reclusive habits? Why did she hide from her relatives? Was she, as they claimed, under the influence of unscrupulous employees who benefited from her lavish gifts — and perhaps mentally imbalanced?

Huguette is gone and cannot speak for herself, but her cousin Paul Clark Newell, Jr. and reporter Bill Dedman give us insight into her world in this absorbing account of a life lived strangely, but with an odd kind of integrity. Huguette’s father, copper magnate W.A. Clark, was a contemporary of Rockefeller and Carnegie and his self-made fortune was equal to or greater than theirs. But as well as tarnishing his own reputation during his lifetime with desperate maneuvering for political office, and adopting a flamboyantly ostentatious style that did not admit him to the higher echelons of society, he didn’t endow any institutions that would perpetuate his name. Instead, he left his substantial monetary legacy to his children by two marriages, including his youngest daughter, Huguette.

The telling of this very American story gives us the double pleasure of shaking our heads at the excesses of the very rich, even as we vicariously enjoy them through detailed descriptions. W.A. Clark took 13 years to build a Fifth Avenue mansion that was then inhabited for only 14 years — after his death it was too expensive for anyone else to maintain. Huguette spent unbelievable sums on elaborate doll scenery and figures, many of which she never saw in person. While we may scoff at such “pointless” enterprises, who among us does not dream of the hobbies and interests we would indulge if we had unlimited funds? Although some of the staff who tended Huguette at the end of her life sneered at her preoccupation with dolls and Flintstone cartoons, Dedman and Newell portray her with sympathy and respect. The licensed robbery of estate planning lawyers and hospital development professionals, on the other hand, does not come off quite so well.

Empty Mansions painting
A painting by Huguette

Such professionals, who specialize in separating the rich from their money, meet a frustratingly intransigent subject in Huguette. She puts off making a will for years. She gives freely, but only where she chooses: notably to her private-duty nurse, who “gives her life to Madame” and reaps rewards in excess of $30 million. Meanwhile, Huguette fends off schemes such as the hospital’s telling her that she has to donate to ensure the preservation of her current building or move to a much less desirable location. (She moves.) Is this generosity, self-serving — due to her reluctance to change staff, she keeps them with her with these enormous sums — eccentricity, or mental illness?

Her relatives know what they think, but readers of Empty Mansions are left with a more nuanced and complex portrait, one that reminds us of the mystery at the heart of each human life, and that we are more than our material possessions. How do we judge such a person? What did her money mean to her, and what did she truly value? The intensely private Huguette is a difficult subject, but Dedman and Newell have done a fine job of sifting through the available evidence and presenting it in an even-handed way, while still leaving us in no doubt of whose side they are on.

A French fable that Huguette recited to her doctor a few years before her death ends: “To live happily, live hidden.” I highly recommend this sometimes disturbing, always fascinating account of a life that has not yet disclosed all its secrets.


One Summer: America 1927 (Nonfiction November Review)

Bill Bryson, One Summer: America 1927 (2013)

America 1927 history

A historical timeline entry for May-October, 1927 might read something like this:

  • Floods devastate the Mississippi valley
  • Charles Lindbergh makes first solo flight across the Atlantic
  • Sacco and Vanzetti executed
  • Calvin Coolidge declines to run for another term as president
  • The Jazz Singer filmed
  • Babe Ruth hits a record sixty home runs in a season

Ho, hum. . . does this list take you back to the droning of your tenth-grade history teacher? In Bryson’s latest work of nonfiction, he tries not to numb us with facts but to illumine what it was like to be an American in the summer of 1927, midway between two world wars, enjoying unprecedented prosperity and on the brink of the Great Depression. The summer’s events are taken as a starting point for a narrative that ranges forward and backward in time, exploring everything from the development of aviation to the rise and fall of Prohibition to the tribulations of the motion-picture industry. In the process we meet a staggering array of athletes, criminals, actors, politicians, explorers, writers, anarchists, scientists, entrepreneurs, and inventors, with their idiosyncrasies played up to the fullest extent.

Bryson’s style here is somewhat more subdued than in the writings that made him popular (such as A Walk in the Woods, reviewed here), in which he writes of his own life and travels in such an engaging and humorous way. Since Bryson was unfortunately unable to time-travel back to 1927, his writing takes on a more distant quality, but still has wonderful touches of sly commentary, as in this passage about the anti-Catholic activities of the Ku Klux Klan:

Many in the state [of Indiana] believed that Catholics had poisoned President Harding and that priests at Notre Dame University in South Bend were stockpiling armaments in preparation for a Catholic uprising. In 1923 the most surreally improbably rumor of all emerged — that the pope planned to move his base of operations from the Vatican City to Indiana.

According to several accounts, when residents of the town of North Manchester heard that the pope was on a particular train, 1500 of them boarded it with a view to seizing the pontiff and breaking up his conspiracy. Finding no one recognizably papal, the mob turned its attentions to a traveling corset salesman, who was nearly dragged off to an unhappy fate until he managed to convince his tormentors that it was unlikely that he would try to stage a coup armed with nothing but a case of reinforced undergarments.

plane pilot Lindbergh
Charles Lindbergh

There’s an impressive number of narrative threads to keep track of here, and in general I found the hopping about between time periods and topics to give a pleasantly lively effect. This works best at the beginning when Lindbergh’s flight (and the accompanying antics of his rivals) acts as an anchor for the story. Toward the end, though, the book starts to unravel with too many short, undeveloped episodes: the origins of television; the birth of the modern musical theatre; the unfortunate rise of eugenics (which brings us back to Lindbergh again). . . the events of a single summer truly can’t be separated out neatly, but tie into everything else that comes before and after, and that gets complicated. Where does one stop? The final chapter of the book proper ends on a somewhat feeble note with a mere listing of the key events, as if attempting to regain control of the proliferating historical themes by reducing them to manageable facts again — an understandable, if somewhat disappointing impulse.

It’s possible to get all snooty about works of popular history such as this and sneer at them as intellectually inferior.* It’s true that there are some infelicities of language in One Summer, with certain words seemingly not clearly understood, and an overuse of the term “literally.” The invariable use of the word “America” when referring to the United States, as in “America went to war with Germany,” also betrays a certain imprecision. If I were writing an academic paper or delivering a speech at a historical society I would not be using Bryson as my primary reference. But I was grateful to him for breaking through some of my historical blind spots, and giving me a summer full of characters and events as colorful, absurd, and eccentric as any in fiction. Unlike my tenth-grade history lessons, I won’t soon forget them.

*As did an incredibly vitriolic review in the Washington Post, which I won’t dignify with a link (but you’ll find it easily if you look).