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Historian Nancy Isenberg takes closer look at class, status in 'White Trash'

| Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Historian Nancy Isenberg
Mindy Stricke
Historian Nancy Isenberg
“White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America” (Viking) by Nancy Isenberg
Mindy Stricke
“White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America” (Viking) by Nancy Isenberg

They were called waste people, their children referred to as fry, and they had more value to the British Crown “as dead colonists than as idle waste in England.”

According to historian Nancy Isenberg, the author of “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America” (Viking), these vagrants, many of them former soldiers and sailors, comprised the vast majority of the people who populated early settlements in Jamestown and New England. They had little or no chance of rising above their status as useful tools for wealthy British investors.

“Americans, on the one hand, like the myths we tell ourselves about the origins of America and that we're the land of opportunity,” says Isenberg, who appears Sept. 25 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures. “But at the same time, as I show in the book, we often don't believe that and are more than willing to divide people up and recognize class distinctions.”

“White Trash” tracks the origins of people referred to as “white trash” in America, from the early colonists through the hillbilly culture of the early 20th century to contemporary portrayals in shows such as “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” While class has been a societal element dating back to Greek and Roman civilizations, Isenberg thinks the difference in the United States lies in how the Founding Fathers promoted the country as apart from the status quo.

“We were building a brand new world order that somehow was going to escape the legacy of class,” she says. “And that myth has gotten a lot of play. It constantly gets invoked whether it's presidents giving addresses, what's taught to grade school children, what's seen on TV. What's interesting about America is we invented this myth of being exceptional that was all tied up in the idea of erasing class.”

Isenberg especially explores the roles of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin in establishing the new nation. Both men are considered populists who embraced the idea of opportunity for all. But Isenberg says Jefferson and Franklin also misread the idea that the vastness of the continent would provide opportunities for upward mobility.

“Rather than living in cities, where they believed class would be more clearly demarcated, they believed people would move west,” she says, “and the class system, Franklin believed, would be flattened out. This also created the illusion that opportunity was connected to land and this was the unique promise of America. But of course, Franklin was wrong. The class system, the slave system, just moved with people as they did move west.”

Isenberg admits she's not sure how the premise of “White Trash” has been accepted, although the book has received many glowing reviews (and, a few devastating critiques). She says the idea of class goes against the grain of many Americans who believe their success is the byproduct of hard work. But Isenberg thinks it's wrong to summarily dismiss class as a factor in personal success.

“It's a nice ideal,” she says of the idea of a true meritocracy,” but it ignores the importance of the influence of the wealth and privilege of your family, which begins to define your class and position the day you are born.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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