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A Look at America’s Long and Troubled History of White Poverty

Sunday 10 July 2016

JUNE 24, 2016

The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
By Nancy Isenberg
Illustrated. 460 pp. Viking. $28.

No line about class in the United States is more famous than the one written by the German sociologist Werner Sombart in 1906. Class consciousness in America, he contended, foundered “on the shoals of roast beef and apple pie.” Sombart was among the first scholars to ask the question, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” His answer, now solidified into conventional wisdom about American exceptionalism, was simple: “America is a freer and more egalitarian society than Europe.” In the United States, he argued, “there is not the stigma of being the class apart that almost all European workers have about them. . . . The bowing and scraping before the ‘upper classes,’ which produces such an unpleasant impression in Europe, is completely unknown.”

In “White Trash,” Nancy Isenberg joins a long list of historians over the last century who have sent Sombart’s theory crashing on the shoals of history. The prolific Charles and Mary Beard, progressive historians in the first third of the 20th century, reinterpreted American history as a struggle for economic power between the haves and have-nots. W.E.B. Du Bois interpreted Reconstruction as a great class rebellion, as freed slaves fought to control their own working conditions and wages. Labor and political historians in the 1970s and 1980s recovered a forgotten history of blue-collar consciousness and grass-roots radicalism, from the Workingmen’s Party in Andrew Jackson’s America to the late-19th-century populists of upcountry Georgia to the Depression-era leftist unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Historians of public policy, like the influential Michael B. Katz, emphasized the persistence of notions of “the undeserving poor,” an ideology that blamed economic deprivation on the alleged pathological behavior of poor people themselves and eroded support for welfare programs.

So Isenberg’s story is not, as her subtitle suggests, “untold.” But she retells it with unusual ambition and (to use a class-­laden term) in a masterly manner. Ranging from John Rolfe and Pocahontas to “The Beverly Hillbillies,” Isenberg — a historian at Louisiana State University whose previous books include a ­biography of Aaron Burr — provides a cultural ­history of changing concepts of class and inferiority. She argues that British colonizers saw their North American empire as a place to dump their human waste: the idle, indigent and criminal. Richard Hakluyt the younger, one of the many colorful characters who fill these pages, saw the continent as “one giant workhouse,” in ­Isenberg’s phrase, where the feckless poor could be turned into industrious drudges.

That process of shunting outsiders to the nation’s margins, she argues, continued in the early Republic and in the 19th century, when landless white settlers began to fill in the backcountry of Appalachia and the swamps of the lowland South, living in lowly cabins, dreaming of landownership but mostly toiling as exploited tenant farmers or itinerant laborers.

In the book’s most ingenious passages, Isenberg offers a catalog of the insulting terms well-off Americans used to denigrate their economic inferiors. In 17th-century Virginia, critics of rebellious indentured servants denounced them as society’s “offscourings,” a term for fecal matter. A hundred years later, elites railed against the “useless lubbers” of “Poor Carolina,” a place she calls the “first white trash colony.” In the early 19th century, landowners described the landless rural poor as boisterous, foolish “crackers” and idle, vagabond “squatters.”

Not all stereotypes of the white poor were negative. In the Jacksonian period, populists celebrated Davy Crockett and his coonskin cap. Lincoln might be derided as a poor woodsman, but he was also valorized for his log cabin roots. During the Great Depression, New Deal photographers and writers depicted farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl as virtuous people, victims of economic forces beyond their control.

By the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th, Isenberg shows, crude caricatures gave way to seemingly scientific explanations of lower-class status. “Class was congenital,” she writes, summarizing a mid-19th-century view of poor whites. One writer highlighted the “runtish forefathers” and “consumptive parents” who birthed a “notorious race” of inferior white people. Essayists described human differences by borrowing terminology from specialists in animal husbandry. Just as dogs could be distinguished by their breeds and horses distinguished from mules, so could people be characterized as superior or inferior based on their physical traits.

By the late 19th century, some writers used family genealogies to trace the roots of criminality, illness and insanity, and warn of the dangers of “degeneration.” By the early 20th century, armed with increasingly sophisticated statistical tools and new understandings of genetics, eugenicists offered the most chilling of responses to poor whites: They argued that the state should use its power to keep them from reproducing. Those arguments shaped one of the Supreme Court’s most notorious decisions, Buck v. Bell (1927), in which the court, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes writing for the majority, upheld a Virginia sterilization program to prevent “generations of imbeciles” from proliferating and thus to keep the nation from being “swamped with incompetence.”

The story of eugenics offers an example of the ways that, throughout the American past, questions of class status have been entangled with notions of racial inferiority. Isenberg makes a strong case that one of the most common ways of stigmatizing poor people was to question their racial identity. Backcountry vagabonds were often compared unfavorably with the “savage,” nomadic Indian. Sun-browned tenant farmers faced derision for their less-than-white appearance. After the emancipation of slaves, politicians warned of the rise of a “mongrel” nation, fearful that white bloodlines would be contaminated by blacks, a process that might expand the ranks of “trash” people.

But Isenberg falls prey to one of the most common and pernicious fallacies in American popular discourse about class: For her, America’s landless farmers and precarious workers are by default white. “Class,” she writes, “had its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from its intersection with race.” Thus we get a history of class in America that ­discusses white tenant farmers at length, but scarcely mentions black sharecroppers or Mexican farmworkers, as if somehow their race segregated them from America’s history of class subjugation. Native Americans make cameo appearances playing their role as a degraded race or as the noble savage — as ideal types rather than as ­exploited and impoverished peoples themselves. The “coolie” Asian workers imported to the post-Civil War South, the Filipino agricultural laborers of California’s Central Valley and the inhabitants of San Francisco’s and New York’s 19th-­century Chinatowns, all workers, most at the bottom of the economic ladder, are virtually absent from these pages, even though they were subject to caricatures stunningly similar to those hurled at backcountry “squatters” and “hillbillies.”

It is a commonplace argument in American politics that somehow race and class stand apart. Pundits charge that racial minorities practice a self-segregating “identity politics” rather than uniting around shared economic grievances. But a history of class in America that assumes its whiteness and relegates the nonwhite poor to the backstage is one that misses the fundamental reality of economic inequality in American history, that race and class were — and are — fundamentally entwined.

Correction: June 28, 2016 
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this review referred incorrectly to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote the majority opinion in the 1927 case Buck v. Bell. Though he was the court’s acting chief justice for a brief period in 1930, he was never chief justice.

Thomas J. Sugrue is a professor of social and cultural analysis and history at New York University.
A version of this review appears in print on June 26, 2016, on page BR11 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: ‘Hicks’ and ‘Hayseeds’.

’White Trash’ argues that America has always been riven by class conflict

Historian Nancy Isenberg’s book is a carefully researched indictment of a particularly American species of hypocrisy, and it’s deeply relevant today.
By Nick Romeo July 6, 2016
In 1786, Thomas Jefferson articulated a founding myth of American democracy: “No distinction between man and man has ever been known in America,” he wrote. To make the new country sound even more idyllic, he added the wishful claim that the “poorest labourer stood on equal ground with the wealthiest Millionary.” It was a land of radical and unprecedented equality, free of “distinctions by birth or badge.”

This was complete hogwash, of course. The roughly 600 slaves that Jefferson owned during his life are one obvious proof that America was not a classless society. But even among men of European ancestry – the highly restricted group Jefferson likely had in mind – class distinctions were so pervasive that an entire vocabulary of scorn existed to describe the poorest whites. Some of these terms are now antiquated, but new epithets have emerged. Lubbers, squatters, crackers, clay-eaters, scalawags, hillbillies, rednecks, trailer trash, swamp people, bogtrotters, offscourings, mudsills – all these terms share a core of contempt. To adapt George Orwell, some people have always been more equal than others.

Historian Nancy Isenberg’s new book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, argues that our society was riven by class conflict and anxiety at every stage of its long history, from the first English colonists to the political upheavals of the present. This claim isn’t necessarily controversial, but the depth and variety of evidence she marshals in its support shows how class connects in startling ways to landscape, heredity, government policy, and popular culture. The book is a carefully researched indictment of a particularly American species of hypocrisy, and it’s deeply relevant to the pathologies of contemporary America.

Isenberg’s story begins with the 16th-century English clergyman Richard Hakluyt, a compiler of travel narratives from the New World who advocated its colonization. He envisioned North America as a wild and uncultivated wasteland that required “waste people” to settle it. Within the metaphor of the body politic, colonists were figurative excrement – unnecessary waste best expelled to a safe distance.

This expulsion had convenient economic benefits for those back in England. Not only could they get rid of beggars, thieves, and other perceived misfits, they could rely on these outcasts to subdue an inhospitable landscape for future trade and settlement. Death rates for colonists before 1625 were as high as 80 percent, a figure perhaps made more palatable by the belief that the majority of colonists were expendable.

After a few colonies were established along the Atlantic seaboard, the same pattern of driving “waste people” westward repeated itself. The wealthy American elite congregated in the cleared and cultivated lands closer to the coast, while the poor – often former indentured servants – endured raids and difficult farming conditions on the frontiers in search of elusive social mobility. In 1676, the governor of Jamestown voiced a common perception when he called the band of poor colonists behind Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebellion “offscourings,” a term for human fecal waste.

The idea that land of poor quality both produces and attracts people of equally low worth reappears in many guises across the centuries of American history that Isenberg examines. Thomas Jefferson championed the value of a society in which the intellectually gifted would be “raked from the rubbish annually,” a revealing agricultural metaphor which betrays his conviction that the vast majority of the underclass are, well, rubbish. Benjamin Franklin described inhabitants of the Pennsylvania backcountry as “refuse.” And Henry David Thoreau likened the Americans spreading into Western states and territories to manure: their only value was as a kind of fertilizer.

A different line of explanation attributed the supposed laziness of poor whites to slavery. James Oglethorpe, who founded Georgia in 1733, initially prohibited slavery in the colony so that free whites would develop a stronger work ethic. Franklin and Jefferson later elaborated the same essential arguments, claiming that because slaves perform the work that poor whites might otherwise, the institution of slavery promoted slothfulness and sundry other vices among poor whites. Slavery, in short, produced white trash. 

This argument became especially popular in the northern states during the Civil War. Calling slavery evil because of the mistreatment of African-Americans was persuasive only among relatively enlightened demographics. To convince more people that the Civil War was morally legitimate, the conflict was reframed as a way of rescuing poor whites from the dire economic and spiritual effects of slavery. 

The eugenics movement that swept Europe and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries provided a veneer of pseudoscientific plausibility to the older idea that poor whites were a separate and lower breed of humanity. As early as 1787, Thomas Jefferson wondered in his "Notes on the State of Virginia," “The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?” One hundred and forty years later, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes took this reasoning to its dreadful conclusion in the infamous 1927 Buck v. Bell ruling. He justified the decision to uphold state statutes permitting compulsory sterilization with this pronouncement: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

The coda of Isenberg’s study analyzes the rebranding of white trash as an ethnic identity. Shows like "The Beverly Hillbillies" initiated the transformation, and today an entire genre of television capitalizes on depictions of this demographic: "Swamp People," "Redneck Island," "Duck Dynasty," "Appalachian Outlaws," "Moonshiners," etc. But this mainstream visibility does not translate into the Jeffersonian ideal of equality. 

It’s fashionable for presidential candidates to campaign in blue jeans and eat barbecue, and it’s profitable for purveyors of music, clothing, and television shows to equate identity with a set of consumer preferences. Yet those who reside on marginal land – think trailer parks at the edge of towns or beside freeways – are still mocked and denigrated, and the wealth gap in America is by many measurements wider than ever before. It’s clearly advantageous for powerful businessmen or political candidates to ape the culture and values of poor whites. But such playacting doesn’t mean the poor are not treated like trash.

“White Trash” — a cultural and political history of an American underclass
Review of "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America" by Nancy Isenberg
By Carlos Lozada June 23

WHITE TRASH: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
By Nancy Isenberg
Viking. 460 pp. $28

If slavery is America’s original sin, class may be its hidden one.

It is part of our national creed that the opportunity to achieve and improve ourselves is not predetermined at birth; that upward mobility, while hard, is possible. We are not the British, after all, trapped in some “Downton Abbey” hell of self-aware stratification — we rebelled against all that, right?

Nancy Isenberg, a professor of history at Louisiana State University, has authored a gritty and sprawling assault on this aspect of American mythmaking. Ours is very much a class-based society, she argues, and had been long before Occupy Wall Street or Bernie Sanders, long before we were a country at all. In “White Trash” Isenberg takes a very particular look at class in the United States, examining the white rural outcasts whom politicians from Andrew Jackson to Donald Trump have sought to rally, but who otherwise have remained vilified, shunned, targeted and kept apart, both physically — in poorhouses and trailer parks, through eugenic science and discriminatory public policy — and in the nation’s cultural imagination, where they have inspired mockery, kitsch and unceasing grimaces.

“The white poor have been with us in various guises, as the names they have been given across the centuries attest,” Isenberg writes. “Waste people. Offscourings. Lubbers. Bogtrotters. Rascals. Rubbish. Squatters. Crackers. Clay-eaters. Tackies. Mudsills. Scalawags. Briar hoppers. Hillbillies. Low-downers. White n—–s. Degenerates. White trash. Rednecks. Trailer trash. Swamp people.”

Isenberg looks upon old American traditions and scoffs, reinterpreting history through the prism of class divisions among the country’s white population, one more caste system in the land of the free. Colonial America, for instance, was “a place where the surplus poor, the waste people of England, could be converted into economic assets.” England’s most destitute city dwellers were sent here — including children, shipped to the colonies in a practice known as “spiriting” — creating a class of white laborers that served as “disposable property,” Isenberg recounts. “Among these unheroic transplants were roguish highwaymen, mean vagrants, Irish rebels, known whores, and an assortment of convicts shipped to the colonies for grand larcenies or other property crimes.” Not to Isenberg’s taste are the kindly tales of Puritans and Plymouth Rock, of John Smith and Pocahontas at Jamestown.

The nation’s founders, already judged for their hypocrisy on slavery, fare little better here on class. During the revolution, George Washington stated that only “the lower class of people” should serve as foot soldiers, while Thomas Jefferson considered importing German immigrants to the colonies, hoping to improve the work ethic — and the breeding stock — of farmers and laborers. “The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other animals,” the Virginian planter noted, adding, “why not in that of man?”

Terms such as “cracker” and “squatter” began as Americanisms that brought pejorative English notions of idleness and vagrancy to this side of the Atlantic, where they served as a shorthand for landless migrants. Land undergirds the enduring class hierarchy, Isenberg stresses; then, as today, property ownership determines the social pecking order. “Hereditary titles may have gradually disappeared,” she explains, “but large land grants and land titles remained central to the American system of privilege.”

By the 1830s and 1840s, the “squatter” had become “fully a symbol of partisan politics, celebrated as the iconic common man who came to epitomize Jacksonian democracy,” Isenberg writes. Taking and clearing land through violence and extra-legal tactics, Jackson emerges as “the political heir of the cracker and squatter.” New and benign versions would reappear in presidential politics, whether with Jimmy Carter (who once quoted a supporter calling him “white trash made good”), Bill Clinton (a self-described Elvis-loving “Bubba,” whose White House dalliances led to a “white trash outing on the grand national stage”) or Sarah Palin, whom Isenberg depicts as “one-half hockey mom and one-half hot militia babe.”

It should hardly surprise that “White Trash” focuses on white people, and Isenberg lingers on how, even among whites, perceived differences in skin color signaled a class split. Nineteenth-century cultural commentators, she writes, often derided the “unnatural complexions” of the white lower classes, with their flesh the color of “yellow parchment” and their copious offspring bearing a “cadaverous, bloodless look.” And from skin hue, it was a short jump to supposed congenital and cognitive disparities. “More than tallow-colored skin, it was the permanent mark of intellectual stagnation, the ‘inert’ minds, the ‘fumbling’ speech,” Isenberg writes. After the Civil War, “hardworking blacks were suddenly the redeemed ones,” while poor whites remained “undeveloped, evolutionarily stagnant creatures.”

Throughout this book, such references to race are fleeting and awkward, appearing in parentheticals or occasional asides. At a time when so much of the national debate over inequality centers on racial divides, Isenberg maintains that “class has its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from its intersection with race.” Still, it’s hard to skirt over race when dissecting class in America. At times, the author justifies her choice by implying a sort of equivalence of hardship, as when she emphasizes that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs “targeted both urban ghettos and impoverished white areas of Appalachia” (the italics are Isenberg’s) or when she argues, somewhat improbably, that in the 1920s poor whites “found their lot comparable to suffering African Americans when it came to the justice system.”

Isenberg even reinterprets the Civil War as a class struggle alongside a racial one: Northerners looked down on poor Southern whites as proving that reliance on slavery weakened free white workers; Confederates countered that the North debased itself by relying on white labor for menial tasks. “It is no exaggeration to say that in the grand scheme of things,” Isenberg contends, “Union and Confederate leaders saw the war as a clash of class systems wherein the superior civilization would reign triumphant.” (Tip: Whenever a sentence begins with “It is no exaggeration to say that . . .” you can safely assume that the rest of the sentence contains an exaggeration.)

“White Trash” features a fascinating exploration of the cultural portrayals of its subject. Sitcoms from the 1960s such as“Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. and “The Beverly Hillbillies” show how the underclass has long produced more amusement than concern or respect. The Ewell family in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960) may be American literature’s purest distillation of white trash, Isenberg writes, emblematic of how “ ‘redneck’ had come to be synonymous with an almost insane bigotry.” The 1972 film “Deliverance”, based on James Dickey’s novel and featuring rape and murder in backwoods Georgia, offers a devastating vision of rustic Southern life. And despite a sort of “redneck chic” phase in the 1980s and 1990s, Isenberg laments the continued “gawking at rural Georgian white trashdom” in TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and similar shows.

“We are a country that imagines itself as democratic, and yet the majority has never cared much for equality,” Isenberg concludes. “Because that’s not how breeding works. Heirs, pedigree, lineage: a pseudo-aristocracy of wealth still finds a way to assert its social power.”
The irony of the Trump presidential campaign — and I confess, the compulsion to read Trumpian implications into any new book has become irresistible — is that the candidate personifies that very pseudo-aristocracy of wealth that has long shunned the white working class, yet he draws his greatest support from it. And that Trump amassed his fortune as a real estate developer, when land and property for so long have marked the red lines between rich and poor, well, that’s just icing.

In an echo of arguments by Thomas Frank and others, Isenberg worries that today we once again are seeing “a large unbalanced electorate that is regularly convinced to vote against its collective self-interest.” Voters are persuaded through fear-filled messages and a false sense of identity, but a certain kind of communicator helps, too. Isenberg tells the 1840 story “The Arkansas Traveler,” in which a politician campaigning for office stops in the backcountry and asks a squatter for refreshment and support. The squatter “had to be wooed for his vote,” Isenberg writes. “He had no patience for a candidate who refused to speak his language.” So the man dismounts his horse, takes the squatter’s fiddle and shows he can play his kind of music. “Once the politician returned to the mansion, however, nothing had changed in the life of the squatter.”

Trump, if nothing else, has shown he knows how to play that fiddle.

Carlos Lozada is associate editor and nonfiction book critic of The Washington Post.
Follow @CarlosLozadaWP

Review: ‘White Trash’ Ruminates on an American Underclass
Books of The Times
JUNE 21, 2016

Crackers and squatters, rednecks and hillbillies, sandhillers and mudsills, clay eaters and hoe wielders: America has developed a rich vocabulary to describe one part of its permanent underclass. The epithet that subsumes them all, to borrow the title of Nancy Isenberg’s formidable and truth-dealing new book, is white trash.

Ms. Isenberg’s project in “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” is to retell United States history in a manner that not only includes the weak, the powerless and the stigmatized, but also places them front and center.

As such, she has written an eloquent volume that is more discomforting and more necessary than a semitrailer filled with new biographies of the founding fathers and the most beloved presidents. (Look, here are six more in my mailbox.) Viewed from below, a good angle for no one, America’s history is usefully disorienting and nearly always appalling. “White Trash” will have you squirming in your chair.

Ms. Isenberg is a professor of American history at Louisiana State University. Her books include a well-regarded biography of Aaron Burr. Her own class background goes unmentioned in “White Trash.” This study does not require the emotional accelerant of memoir.

Like Howard Zinn in “A People’s History of the United States” (1980), Ms. Isenberg presents an alternative interpretation of American history. Unlike Mr. Zinn, she is not interested in crusaders and labor organizers and politicians of a socialist bent. Do not come to her book to learn about the Wobblies. The story she tells is more intimate. It’s an analysis of the intractable caste system that lingers below the national myths of rugged individualism and cities on hills.

Ms. Isenberg contends that adults in America are spoon-fed their history as if they were toddlers. We are eager consumers of the national hagiography. She subverts this hagiography at every turn, starting at the beginning.

America’s colonial beginnings tend to be viewed, Ms. Isenberg writes, through the “beliefs of those principled leaders molded in bronze — the John Winthrops and William Penns — who are lionized for having projected the enlarged destinies of their respective colonies.”

Yet she demonstrates that most early settlers did not buy into these destinies. Nor did most come to escape religious persecution. “During the 1600s,” she writes, “far from being ranked as valued British subjects, the great majority of early colonists were classified as surplus population and expendable ‘rubbish.’”

Many were indentured servants. Others were “roguish highwaymen, mean vagrants, Irish rebels, known whores and an assortment of convicts shipped to the colonies for grand larceny or other property crimes.” Others were simply lazy — “idlers,” in the lingo of the time. They would rather drink rum than clear an acre of pine trees.

America did not develop a House of Lords, yet we imported the rigging of the British class system, Ms. Isenberg argues. This was hardly a land of equal opportunity. Brutal labor awaited most migrants. There was little social mobility.

“Puritan religious faith did not displace class hierarchy, either; the early generations of New Englanders did nothing to diminish, let alone condemn, the routine reliance on servants or slaves,” she observes. “Land was the principal source of wealth, and those without any had little chance to escape servitude. It was the stigma of landlessness that would leave its mark on white trash from this day forward.”

From this beginning, Ms. Isenberg moves confidently forward, through, for example, the class issues that undergirded the Civil War and the popular eugenics movement, favored by Theodore Roosevelt, that marked many as targets for sterilization. Slavery and racism are hardly discounted in this book, but she maintains her focus on poor whites.

She singles out North Carolina as “what we might call the first white trash colony.” It was swampy and, thanks to its shoal-filled shoreline, lacked a major port. It had no real planter class. Its citizens were viewed as sluggards, “cowardly Blockheads” in the words of one early writer. Another referred to the state as the lawless “sinke of America.”

Ms. Isenberg moves through the Great Depression, pausing to admire James Agee’s complex yet urgent nonfiction account of the lives of poor tenant farmers in Alabama, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” (1941). Elvis arrives. So does Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.

Trailer parks, redolent of “liberty’s dark side,” come under her appraisal, as do movies like “Deliverance.” (She finds its redneck caricatures to be loathsome.) The careers of Dolly Parton, Jimmy Carter, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Bill Clinton are analyzed. Mr. Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky resulted in a spectacle that the author likens to a “white trash outing on the grand national stage.”

She considers the phenomenon of Sarah Palin, and reality television shows like “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and “Duck Dynasty.” Donald J. Trump the politician is not on this book’s radar, yet Ms. Isenberg writes in her Palin section: “When you turn an election into a three-ring circus, there’s always a chance the dancing bear will win.”

Throughout this volume, there is an awareness of a cruel aspect of our moral complexion. “Americans not only scrambled to get ahead,” she writes, “they needed someone to look down on.” Gore Vidal put this another way: “It is not enough merely to win; others must lose.”

Ms. Isenberg does not skimp on economic analysis. She notes how the central engines of our economy, from slave-owning planters up through today’s bank and tax policies, have systematically harmed the working poor. “We have to wonder,” she writes about her book’s subjects, “how such people exist amid plenty.”

Part of her answer is the “backlash that occurs when attempts are made to improve the conditions of the poor,” from the New Deal through Obamacare. “Government assistance is said to undermine the American dream,” she writes, adding: “Wait. Undermine whose American dream?”

This estimable book rides into the summer doldrums like rural electrification. It reminds us that, as Simon Schama wrote, venting his dislike of “Downton Abbey,” “History’s meant to be a bummer, not a stroll down memory lane.”

“White Trash” is indeed a bummer, and a thoroughly patriotic one. It deals in the truths that matter, which is to say, the uncomfortable ones.

White Trash
The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
Nancy Isenberg
Illustrated. 460 pages. Viking. $28

A version of this review appears in print on June 22, 2016, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: American History, Viewed From Below.

See online: A Look at America’s Long and Troubled History of White Poverty