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

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A Year in Reading: Bill Morris

The highlight of my reading life this year was, no contest, the new novel from the Irish volcano Kevin Barry. His Night Boat to Tangier was short-listed for the Booker Prize, and it provides all the pleasures his fans have come to expect, including pyrotechnical language, a delicious stew of high lit and low slang, lovable bunged-up characters, rapturous storytelling, and a fair bit of the old U(ltra) V(iolence), in the form of a knife to a knee, a gouged-out eye, and heart-crushing betrayal. The setup—two aging Irish gangsters waiting for a woman at the ferry terminal in the seedy Spanish port of Algeciras—has obvious echoes of Beckett. But Barry told me in an interview that while writing the book he was actually much more under the sway of Harold Pinter’s early plays from the 1960s, especially The Caretaker and The Birthday Party, with their sneaky undertows of menace. Don’t bother trying to parse the influences. Do yourself a favor and read Night Boat to Tangier, then go to Barry’s earlier, equally brilliant work.

While writing an essay on the great comedian and Blaxploitation star Rudy Ray Moore—occasioned by Eddie Murphy’s comeback role as Moore in the new movie Dolemite Is My Name—I happened upon an insightful book by Jim Dawson called The Compleat Motherfucker: A History of the Mother of All Dirty Words. The book places trash-talkin’, kung-fu-kickin’, full-time-pimpin’ Moore in a context of other broad and bawdy black comedians, from Moms Mabley and Pigmeat Markham through Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor. Dawson makes the valuable point that Moore’s cult status among black audiences was based on his authenticity, which in turn was built on his decision to “stay on the fringes, below white society’s radar.” Smart move. The man was a sui generis genius.

As research for a nonfiction book I’m writing, I read a pair of books that explore the origins and contours of America’s class system. The first was the classic The Mind of the South by a North Carolina newspaperman named W.J. Cash, who committed suicide five months after the book’s publication. Its cold appraisal of the Southern class system, from the loftiest aristocrats down to the lowliest trash, led C. Vann Woodward to call it “the perfect foil” for Margaret Mitchell’s magnolia-scented fantasy Gone with the Wind, published two years earlier. The second book was Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, which generated an unexpected flash of insight: Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson are actually the same person! Isenberg must have been thinking of Trump when she wrote this about Jackson: “Ferocious in his resentments, driven to wreak revenge against his enemies, he often acted without deliberation and justified his behavior as a law unto himself.” She adds that the presidential personality “was a crucial part of his democratic appeal as well as the animosity he provoked. He was not admired for statesmanlike qualities, which he lacked in abundance.” I grew suspicious that Isenberg was writing a cleverly coded takedown of Trump, but I realized that was unlikely because the book was published five months before the 2016 election. And some people still doubt that history repeats itself.

I got my first taste of Edwidge Danticat’s fiction through her terrific new collection of short stories, Everything Inside, deft explorations of the small moments of joy available to the Haitians who populate these tales, set mostly in Haiti and Miami. And finally, on the occasion of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 100th birthday, on March 24, I read his new memoir, Little Boy, an ebullient summing up of a century of life richly lived.

True Fake Fact: Donald Trump Is Andrew Jackson

Sometimes we open a book hoping to learn one thing and wind up getting bushwhacked by something completely unrelated and unexpected. I’m having that unnerving experience right now with Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

I started reading the book as research for a nonfiction book I’m writing about a man who was born into a slave-owning family in Virginia during the Civil War and died at the age of 92 at the peak of the Cold War. I was looking for insights into the origins and evolution of Virginia’s (and America’s) class system and, specifically, for evidence supporting my long-held belief that the United States never was and never will be a classless society.

Though Isenberg has solid credentials—she wrote the well-received Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, coauthored Madison and Jefferson, and teaches American history at Louisiana State University—I’ll admit I approached White Trash with some trepidation. That “400-Year Untold History” claim in the subtitle smelled of over-reach, and the early chapters failed to convince me that my nose was malfunctioning. Then I came to chapter five, “Andrew Jackson’s Cracker Country: The Squatter as Common Man.” After a meandering description of the landless, uncouth “crackers and squatters” who led the young republic’s expansion beyond the Appalachian Mountains, Isenberg comes to her central character: Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory, the raw-boned Tennessee scrapper and warrior who would become the seventh president of the United States. Isenberg’s sketch of Jackson opens hot and quickly catches fire: “Ferocious in his resentments, driven to wreak revenge against his enemies, he often acted without deliberation and justified his behavior as a law unto himself…Jackson’s personality was a crucial part of his democratic appeal as well as the animosity he provoked. He was not admired for statesmanlike qualities, which he lacked in abundance in comparison to his highly educated rivals…His supporters adored his rough edges…Using violent means if necessary, and acting without legal authority, Jackson was arguably the political heir of the cracker and squatter.”

That was when the gong went off. It was impossible to miss. Isenberg was not merely sketching Andrew Jackson; she was, chapter and verse, sketching the personal and political biography of…Donald Trump. As I continued reading, I found myself subconsciously substituting Trump’s name for Jackson’s, and other players in our contemporary political shitshow for the 19th-century actors in the Jacksonian soap opera. The parallels were so precise they were spooky. Here, with italics marking my mental edits, was what I read:

“Trump’s was a career built on sheer will and utter impulse…Controversy, large and small, seemed to follow the man. Because Trump had relatively little experience holding political offices, his run for the presidency drew even more than the normal amount of attention to his personal character. A biography written for campaign purposes…focused on his volatile emotions. He certainly lacked the education and polite breeding of his presidential predecessors.”

At this point, a suspicion sprang to life. Could it be that Isenberg was writing a cleverly coded takedown of Donald Trump? But I soon learned that this was nearly impossible because White Trash was published five months before the 2016 election, when just about no one, least of all Hillary Clinton and The New York Times, thought Donald Trump had a snowball’s chance of winning the presidency. So Isenberg was not writing in code. The uncanny parallels between our seventh and 45th presidents are the fruit of deep scholarly research. They are actual facts. Isenberg continues, again with my italics:
Prominent critics insisted on a congressional investigation. The powerful Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, demanded the president’s censure. Trump damned the established legal authorities…Confirmed rumors circulated that Trump had threatened to cut off the ears of some senators because they had dared to investigate—and humiliate—him on the national stage.
Of course, both besieged presidents had their defenders:
Trump’s nomination provoked “sneers and derision from the myrmidons of power at Washington,” wrote one avid Trump man, who decried “the degeneracy of American feeling in that swamp.” Trump wasn’t a government minion or a pampered courtier, and thus his unpolished and un-statesmanlike ways were an advantage. In 2019, in a speech before Congress, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky used this kind of language to reproach members of the House for investigating Trump’s activities…The men and women censuring Trump, whom the Kentucky senator mocked as the “young sweet-smelling and powdered beau of the town,” were out of their league. With this clever turn of phrase, McConnell recast Trump’s foes as coastal elites, the classic enemies of flyover country.
Just when I started thinking it was time to get some sex into this parallel-universe narrative, Isenberg obliged: “The candidate’s private life came under equal scrutiny. His irregular marriage became scandalous fodder during the election of 2016…In the ever-expanding script detailing Trump’s misdeeds, adultery was just one more example of his uncontrolled passions. Having affairs with porn stars and then paying them hush money belonged to the standard profile of the backwoods aggressor who refused to believe the law applied to him…He simply took what he wanted, and was even willing to, by his own admission, ‘grab them by the pussy.’”

Even staggering ignorance of international affairs was seen as a virtue by these presidents’ supporters, as Isenberg notes: “If his lack of diplomatic experience made him ‘homebred,’ this meant he was less contaminated than former ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch by foreign ideas or courtly pomp. The class comparison could not be ignored: Hillary Clinton had been a first lady and a secretary of state, while Trump was ‘sprung from a common family,’ and had written nothing to brag about. Instinctive action was privileged over unproductive thought.”

That “common family” claim required a little more massaging in Trump’s case than in Jackson’s, and Trump’s minions have been happy to oblige. “Partisans of Trump claimed that he was from backwoods stock,” Isenberg writes. “This was untrue. Trump was born into an elite New York real-estate family, and though he had briefly been a resident of Queens, that five-bedroom Tudor had been abandoned long ago in favor of Trump Tower.”

It’s likely that Trump, like Jackson before him, has brought lasting changes to the American scene. As Isenberg puts it: “Trump’s candidacy changed the nature of democratic politics. One political commentator noted that Trump’s reign ushered in the ‘game of brag.’ Another observer concluded that a new kind of ‘tweeting country politician’ had arisen, who could tweet for hours before having finally ‘exhausted the fountain of his panegyric on President Trump.’”

As I reached the end of chapter five in White Trash, I dimly remembered hearing that Donald Trump is a big fan of Old Hickory. A little digging reminded me that early in his presidency, in March 2017, Trump had visited Jackson’s estate, the Hermitage, near Nashville to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Jackson’s birth. In one of his keener readings of history, Trump declared, “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.” Hard to fact-check that whopper because Jackson died 16 years before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. No matter. Trump added that he admires Jackson—and he has Jackson’s portrait on the wall in the Oval Office—because he was “a very tough person” with a “big heart.” Tell that to the 150 human beings Jackson owned at the time of his death, some of whom he hunted down personally when they tried to escape from bondage. Or tell that to the thousands of Native Americans and black slaves who perished during Jackson’s enforced relocation known as the Trail of Tears, an act of genocide by any other name.

But let’s not get bogged down with true facts when the world is bursting with so many fake facts. And let’s not lose sight of the completely unexpected lesson in Isenberg’s book. The republic survived Andrew Jackson—and Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Surely it will survive Donald Trump? We might get the answer to that question sooner than anyone expected, shortly before the swearing in of President Pence.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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