Review: “White Trash. The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America” by Nancy Isenberg

I found this book perusing the shelves of my favorite bookstore. It was prominently placed as one of their “books of the month”. I don’t normally pay attention to “books of the month” because they often aren’t my style. But this one I was intrigued by. There has been so much discourse on class in America surrounding this election that I was eager to learn more on the topic.

White Trash manages to deliver on its claim. Starting with the first British colonists and ending with 2008 Presidential Election, Isenberg presents us with what seems to be a complete history of the American class system. The work does not just focus on the plight of poor whites or “white trash”, instead it offers a complete view of the class system and how the attitudes of each has helped to shape the system.

“The American Dream is double-edged in that those who are able to carve out their own destiny are also hard pressed not to condemn those who get stuck between the cracks”

Surprisingly, Isenberg identifies the importance of popular culture in both representing and influencing the thoughts of the time period. She therefore incorporates the popular culture of each time period into her explanations without relying too heavily on it as exhaustive proof.

“Job opportunities for all-the myth of full employment- is just that, a myth. The economy cannot provide employment for everyone, a fact that is little acknowledged”

In addition, Isenberg seems to remain very objective in her discussion of  politics for the majority of the book. She handles the Civil War masterfully without vilifying either side and points out flaws in the opinions of both sides. However, when it comes to the modern political climate she is especially critical of Republicans and unusually lax on Democrats. I may be more sensitive to this due to my own political beliefs, but I find it particularly unappealing in books that claim to be histories that do not handout praise and criticism equally. Of course, this did not ruin the book for me but its jarring placement in the last chapter and epilogue left me with a particularly bad taste in my mouth.

“We give children of the famous a big head start, deferring to them as rightful heirs, a modern-day version of the Puritans’ children of the Elect”

Overall, White Trash is a highly insightful, educated jaunt into the very real “hushed-up” class system in America. It is perfectly enjoyable reading on its own, but is the perfect companion to Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. VanceThe two works are a match made in heaven.

Bottom Line: White Trash, though not exactly page turner, is perfect for the reader interested in the history of the social system in America. If you enjoyed Hillbilly Elegy you’ll enjoy this.


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