White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg, Viking, 460 pages, $28; Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance, Harper, 272 pages, $27.99. Utterly incontestable is the opening page of Nancy Isenberg’s preface to “White Trash” in which she writes about the classic film (“one of President Obama’s favorite movies”) made out of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” There is no question about where the tale’s ultimate villainy lay – with “Robert E. Lee Ewell ... As Harper Lee described them in the novel from which the classic film was adapted, the Ewells were members of the terminally poor, whose status could not be lifted or debased by any economic fluctuation – not even the Depression. They were human waste.” White Trash. The least defended of Americans – to many an acceptable prejudice still to replace race in the classic American dynamic of eliminating one prejudice only by instituting another. That is why the value of Nancy Isenberg’s long-overdue “untold history, “White Trash,” is essential no matter how many questions one might have about either her methodology or conclusions. No matter what, here is a subject that has long been crying out for exactly this kind of book-length history. Replacing race with class in American prejudice can’t help but be combustible politically in exactly the ways we’re now seeing in this election year. With “the curious and complicated story of American class identity” her subject, so is “the pervasiveness of a class hierarchy in the United States” which almost of all of us would vigorously deny, even while mutely assenting to all of the essential presumptions of a film like “To Kill a Mockingbird.” An important book.
When, at one point, Isenberg gets around to the differences between “rednecks” and “hillbillies” among the “Uncouth Countrymen” found in 1904 by the American Dialect Society, it divvied up simply this way: “hillbillies came from the hills and the rednecks came from the swamps.” That’s not what happens in the entirely personal “Hillbilly Elegy” by the Yale Law School grad who “grew up poor in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that had been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember.” He too wants readers to understand “the lives of the poor.” – Jeff Simon