Busting the Myth of American Exceptionalism

White Trash. The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

By Nancy Isenberg

We Americans hold many beliefs about our nation, most of which fall under the rubric of American Exceptionalism. Prime among these are that we live in a classless society, where equality reigns supreme, where everybody shares the same opportunity to strike it rich, where even if our relations with others aren’t perfect we take pride in at least trying. So, when a historian comes along to reveal the very foundations of these shared ideas as myth by baring the harsher realities of American life, resistance, objection, and even vilification should not surprise anybody.

Isenberg’s new cultural history stands out because she details how class transported over on the boats that delivered the first colonists to American shores, how it rooted firmly in American soil both in northern and southern colonies from the beginning, how it influenced the Founding Fathers and then subsequent generations, and how it morphed in the 19th and 20th centuries into what we have still today. We like to think that we left the aristocracies and class divisions of the Old World behind us, that our revolution was more about freedom for all than freedom for a few well-off, but, of course, when we dispel the fog of myth, we know that isn’t true.

Some highlights include the Founding Fathers’ views, among them Franklin and Jefferson, and how the limitless West served to siphon off what were known as waste people and the early ideas of breeding better people (the early version of Eugenics that formed as an idea in the 19th century and crystalized in early 20th-century America, well covered by Isenberg). If you have ever puzzled over why a poor and pretty much disenfranchised poor white population would rally to the cause of a minority pack of Southern land- and slaveholders, then you’ll find Isenberg’s dredging up of the Confederate use of class warfare interesting and satisfying. Too, directly related to this is the North’s psychological warfare that exploited class divisions in the South.

The roots and early permutations of class take up a bit more than half of the text and the balance moves through the 20th-century to current times, covering the earlier mentioned Eugenics movement, the New Deal, segregation, the War on Poverty, and finally exploitation of white trash as an entertainment phenomenon, not so much a legitimizing makeover but more a way for many to sneer and feel superior. In that list of topics, the New Deal and the War on Poverty, while imperfect, demonstrate that we can to some extent achieve what we claim to represent and aspire to, that is, a bit more leveling of opportunity and class.

Isenberg’s Introduction explains what you’ll find in the text and her Epilogue presents her conclusions. From the both sections, there are theses, which as many will accept as truth as will find them abhorrent. Nonetheless, they forewarn you about what to expect:

Introduction: “At all times, white trash remind us of one of the American nation’s uncomfortable truths: the poor are always with us. A preoccupation with penalizing poor whites reveals an uneasy tension between what Americans are taught to think the country promises—the dream of upward mobility—and the less appealing truth that class barriers almost invariably make that dream unobtainable. Of course, the intersection of race and class remains an undeniable part of the overall story.”

Epilogue: “Without a visible hand, markets did not at any time, and do not now, magically pave the way for the most talented to be rewarded; the well connected were and are preferentially treated.” (You might want to read that again against what we experienced in 2008 and what we may face in the coming years.)

The work reflects a great deal of scholarship, especially primary, as a reading of the footnotes demonstrate, though a bibliography would be appreciated. Contains a good index that makes looking up specific historical persons, of whom there are many, easy. w/c


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