Culture

The White-Minstrel-Show Version of History

(Portrait: Mindy Stricke/Penguin)
A familiar tale about class in America gets a poor retelling in a new book.

Nancy Isenberg has produced, in White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, a dreadfully stupid and lazy book. It is badly written, poorly conceived, and incompetently executed. Isenberg would join the long line of American debunkers and would-be debunkers of a familiar and surpassingly tedious sort: “Sure, Americans sent a man to the moon, but what about the United Fruit Company in Guatemala back in 1954? Huh? Huh?”

Isenberg’s argument, if we may be so generous as to call it that, is this: The American culture was not born ex nihilo on July 4, 1776, and in the English parts of the New World colonists reproduced some form of the English class structure; the freedom-seeking Puritans were not alone, but were joined by all manner of riff-raff dispatched by English powers as a form of domestic social hygiene, making the United States a kind of Australia before there was an Australia; the United States today is not a society without class divisions.

Well, raise my rent.

Virginia was named for an English queen and its settlement was sponsored by a knight. Its basic law was a royal charter, and its economy was shaped in no small part by indentured servitude and chattel slavery. These are not egalitarian arrangements, and they did not produce egalitarian outcomes. This is not “untold history.” This is history told, and told, and told again. Life in early-17th-century Jamestown, Isenberg tells us, was not unlike the world of William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice; what we are to take from the fact that an English settlement was culturally consistent with the work of an English playwright working at approximately the same time (1596 in this case) is anybody’s guess.

About 20 pages in, I found myself thinking: “I wonder when we get to NASCAR?” Obviously, you cannot have an intellectually lazy and cliché-ridden book about white-trash culture without NASCAR, preferably with a tangential report on the box-office performance of Smokey and the Bandit in 1977. That would be like having a batty and ignorant book on African-American culture without fried chicken and watermelon. Rest assured, you’ll get your NASCAR, your Dukes of Hazzard, and more.

But it’s a while coming. The structure of the book reeks of sophomore-level procrastination. Perhaps this will be more obvious to you if you’ve ever been obliged to write something long and complicated on a deadline and performed poorly. (Not that I would know anything about that.) The first chapter of the book is the book essay, a distillation of the book’s argument that usually is submitted to publishers as part of a book proposal. You aren’t supposed to publish the book essay, but Isenberg seems to have done that or something quite close to it. So what we have is a brief version of the book’s overall argument, followed by a series of half-thought-out chapters in which we are treated to reports on Thomas Jefferson and class, the Civil War and class, the Great Depression and class, each connected only vaguely, if at all, with the others, and an epilogue.

You will not be surprised to learn that Jefferson had attitudes about class that were more or less characteristic of a man of his day, and that popular attitudes toward the subject changed slowly over time in response to historical events. It may be that all of this could add up to an illuminating account of class differences in the United States, and maybe even an account of persistent social injustice of a kind, but, if it does, that has escaped Isenberg entirely.

She does not even seem to read her own sentences, at least as they relate to one another in sequence, e.g.: “[Benjamin] Franklin was not sympathetic to the plight of the poor. His design for the Pennsylvania Hospital in 1751 was intended to assist the industrious poor, primarily men with physical injuries.” I found myself blinking and rereading that sentence, and wondering how and why a man who was not sympathetic to the plight of the poor should design a charity hospital for their benefit. It is true that Franklin, like charitable men before and after and now, distinguished between different kinds of poor people, between the so-called deserving poor and ordinary bums, partly as a moral exercise and partly as a kind of philanthropic triage, resources being limited. But there is not an ordinary reading of the English words “was not sympathetic to the plight of the poor” that describes a man who undertook to relieve the plight of the poor through charitable works.

Franklin particularly perplexes and vexes Isenberg. He was a fugitive from an apprenticeship to his older brother (a form of indenture) and was from a family of modest means. Isenberg writes: “He had arrived in Philadelphia in 1723 as a runaway, meanly dressed in filthy, wet clothing.” Given this fact, she is scandalized by Franklin’s later complaints about “vagrant and idle persons” congregating in Philadelphia. (The more things change . . .) One wonders whether Isenberg has ever been to America. Franklin, as Isenberg might learn from reading Isenberg, was a man who began with very little and who managed to rise in Philadelphia — and rise and rise until he became its most celebrated resident — despite being an outsider to the Quaker mafia that ran the place and having no real connections to the “Proprietors,” the Penns and allied families who dominated the colony socially and economically. How did that happen? Isenberg knows: “Quaker patrons,” including the lawyer Alexander Hamilton (no relation to that guy Aaron Burr shot), “a non-Quaker leader of the Quaker Party,” along with “liberal Friends, who were not exclusive about who should wield influence within the political faction of the Quaker Party.” Which is to say, Franklin rose in no small part through his own hard work and cunning but was also enabled by an open, liberal, cosmopolitan, commercial society in which one’s original station in life was not necessarily one’s final station — i.e., he rose because of the very American order whose liberality this daft book was written to debunk.

Perhaps Franklin appalls Isenberg because he is recognizably the first modern American, and he talked like one.

Isenberg has a habit of doing that to herself. Hilariously, she argues that one of the problems with westward expansion was that the settlers’ class positions became less secure the farther they traveled from the eastern colonial capitals. That is, of course, the founding idea of the American meritocratic ethos and the related myth of a classless American society. The old divisions really did melt away in the refining fires of the frontier — only to be replaced with new ones. Isenberg writes as though class politics in the United States were a seamless continuation of British class politics (French-speaking, Spanish-speaking, German-speaking, and Russian-speaking America effectively do not exist in her account), when in reality they constitute something closer to an inversion of them. If an Englishman today has the wrong accent and failed to go to the right schools, it doesn’t matter how much money he has; if an American has enough money, nobody cares what sort of funky, plebeian manner of speech he has (cf. Trump, Donald, yugeness of) or whether he went to school at all — in fact, we tend to celebrate those who come from outside the Ivy League–Wall Street world much more intensely than those who merely advance a few degrees within it. If you’re the 14th Earl of Derby and just Derbying on the way the 13th did before you, the English class system regards you with some awe; if you’re the ninth Biddle to be chairman of the Merion Cricket Club membership committee, the American system thinks you should have maybe tried harder in school or gotten an MBA or something.

Perhaps Franklin appalls Isenberg because he is recognizably the first modern American, and he talked like one. “I think the best way of doing good to the poor is not making them easy in poverty but leading or driving them out of it.” Is that Ben Franklin or Paul Ryan?

Eventually, we get to the modern era, and the sympathetic Joads of Isenberg’s imagination become objects of her contempt, from those NASCAR-watching, Burt Reynolds–impersonating hordes to Sarah Palin, who inspires a hatred in Isenberg that is unpleasant to witness on the page and must be absolutely manic in person. She repeats Slate’s report that Palin’s home town of Wasilla, Alaska, is just a place to “get gas and pee,” but she writes as one who obviously never has stopped there, or watched a Lady Wildcats game with bar patrons in Harlan, Ky., or stopped to talk with foot-washing Baptists praying for rain in a cotton field outside Brownfield, Texas. Well, if the bright kids at Slate say so, it must be true.

Isenberg teaches at Louisiana State, having studied at Rutgers and the University of Wisconsin. Her book inevitably will be compared — poorly — with J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. In Isenberg, there is no sense of knowing this culture and its people. By her own telling, her interest in the subject is rooted in To Kill a Mockingbird (the film, not the book), and her work is full of such information as can be had from Google or in a classroom in Madison. As for the people, they’re mainly just evidence to be mustered against the Great Satan that is American capitalism, or else, like Sarah Palin, characters in Isenberg’s white-minstrel-show version of history. There may come a time when the members of the white underclass decide that they do not want or need nice liberal ladies from Rutgers, who get so much wrong speaking about them, to speak for them. But for those of Isenberg’s disposition, the poor are very little more than pawns, and in the end it doesn’t matter very much whether you’re playing the white side of the chess board or the black.

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