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White Trash in the Twentieth Century



. The bi-polar icon of "white trash" and "good country people, first devised within the long and complicated history of semi-feudal agrarianism of the antebellum South and then further entrenched by the burgeoning class consciousness of the fragile post-war South, inevitably filters into much of the regional literature of the early Twentieth Century. In trying to explain the Southern identity to a dubious nation as well as to provide the New South a vision of itself, these authors choose the side of the stereotype that particularly corresponds with his version of the poor whites' position in the Dixie social hierarchy. As a result, an enduring and complex literary history of labelling and redefining these southern social indigents creates for the poor whites a much more elusive role in the American imagination than they ever occupy in their native South. During the late eighteenth century, Southern literature remains largely concerned with the affirmation and preservation of the grand Old South. Rather than face the uncomfortable political and social aftermath of the Reconstruction these Southern authors choose to defend the "homey comforts and fixed relationships of the good old days before the war" (Kirby 39). Hence, as the poor whites played a small supporting role in the economics and society of a South largely concerned with the landed aristocracy and its reliance on free labor, in works like those of Thomas Nelson Page, the role of the poor white is virtually non-existent amid the handsome beaus, beautiful belles, and loyal Sambos. After the predominance of the local color story during this transitional period, the portraits of the struggling New South painted by the writers of the "Southern Gothic" present an image of the poor whites that largely conditions the perception of them in the American mind. In stark opposition to the southern romance of Page which virtually excludes the white masses, "gradually the surreal potential of Dixie Poverty, social customs, and history gained dominance in the media. What Ellen Glasgow was to call in 1935 the 'Southern Gothic School' appeared" (Kirby 49). To the great indignation of the South and the shock of the American public, elements of sex and violence and fundamentalism invade the once sentimental visions of happy darkies singing and working under the benevolent eyes of the Colonel as he sips mint juleps on the plantation veranda. Now, writers such as T.S. Stribling, W.J. Cash and reporter H.L. Mencken expose the dark undercurrents of the contemporary South within the context of the "realist" genre (Kirby 49). As a result, the stereotypes of lasciviousness, misogyny, ignorance and brutality created and maintained by the upper-class whites in Dixie are now heartily affirmed in the South and quickly absorbed by all impressionable outsiders.

H.L. Mencken's scorching satire of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, virtually ignites this startling transformation from the romance of the Old South to the horrific portrayal of the New South. The correspondent's depiction and ridicule of the bible-quoting, red-faced, finger-pointing William Jennings Bryan and his congregation of fundamentalist hillbillies only confirms Northern suspicions of the South's rampant ignorance, anti- intellectualism, and hostility toward foreigners. Mencken's outlandish reports of the town of Dayton Tennessee, the interplay among legal characters and townspeople, and the actual proceedings of the trial make his work seem more like slap-stick comedy than any professional newswriting.

In 1941, W.J. Cash takes up Mencken and Clarence Darrow's "gleeful pillorying of Dixie backwardness" and attempts to give it historic legitimacy within the Civil War/Reconstruction saga in his epic, Mind of the South (Kirby 56). Largely ignoring the social constructs of the antebellum South, Cash focuses on the reorganization of the post-war South and its resulting injuries to the once-idyllic society. Labelling his theory "the savage ideal," Cash strives to sociologically blame this so-called decline of the southern masses on the outside influences of the Yankee and the burgeoning frontier. The concept concludes that the economic and political upheavals immediately following the war also capsize the deeply ingrained culture of the south, dooming the yeoman to regress years in economics, education, manners, and morals. As a result, these poor whites deprived of their heritage, their land, and their pride grow embittered, salacious, and downright mean. According to Cash's theory, the "tribal ethos" and ardent evangelicism that Darrow and Mencken find so absurd in Dayton are merely a desperate attempt to understand and endure their predicament. The God to which they cleave, however, necessarily demands hard labor, suffering, strict adherence to commandments, and the communion of the people in exchange for radical salvation, thus explaining the severity of their fundamentalist belief.

As evidenced by the enormous popularity of Cash's opus, America swallows his version of the trampled South. In the midst of contemporary the political and social changes enveloping Dixie, Cash's bleak characterization of the land of zipadeedoodah could be conveniently attached to the broader American expectations for the region, as Kirby maintains:

The savage ideal included a few occasionally endearing Southern traits: hedonism ("hoggishness in enjoyment"), extravagance (particularly inlanguage), good-ole-boyism, physical bravery, loyalty, patience insuffering. But mostly the "ideal" encompassed the 'darker phases': militant ignorance and anti-intellectualism; brutal, violent racism,; xenophobia; self-righteousness and blind defensiveness. Thus the low state of high art, the Negro-lynching and Ku Kluxery, the suspicion of anything foreign, the incredible claims to superiority by the most impoverished of Americans. Cash's was a South acting upon distorted folk memory and visceral response alone. (Kirby 83).

The literature of the forties and fifties only gives testimony to Mind of the South's disgraceful sociology of the lower states, and perhaps entrenches it even further through the vividly disturbing portrayals of the poor Southern whites. The curious mixture of the bawdy but harmless good-ole-boy and the more threatening white trash types found in Cash's characterization gets shaken and spilled in the writings of William Faulkner and the works of Erskine Caldwell, blurring the reader's neat, two-dimensional understanding of the southern stock characters, literally turning yeoman farmers into rural monsters. In Caldwell's Tobacco Road and in Faulkner's Sartoris, Cash's "extravagance" surfaces as fierce immorality and promiscuity; his "physical bravery" erupts in repressed anger and violence. "In the postwar generations, however-- consistent with the Manichean Old/New Souths of the thirties-- brutal passion and neuroses came to rule where paternal compassion and gentility once dwelt," writes Kirby. "Faulkner and Caldwell introduced and mastered this genre in novels and stories. In the forties and early fifties the tribal, passionate, and neurotic New South achieved a currency and validity which have persisted in the media to this day" (Kirby 80).

This nationally pervasive as well as culturally subversive image of the poor Southerner does not go unchallenged, however. A disgruntled group of Southern literati, photographers, and sociologists proud of their native South and its persevering heritage begin to challenge the Gothic School's portrayal of the poor as dangerous, amoral, and stupid. Instead, they focus not the horror of the people themselves, but on the horror of the condition of poverty and hunger and sickness, of the inhumanities intrinsic to the sharecropper system, of their quiet and bitter suffering while the upper classes and the rest of the nation regard them as either shiftless, pathetic or both.

Particularly, James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men pries into the lives of some of these poor tenant farmers, though not just through the lens of a camera but through the eyes and thoughts of a writer saturated with the odor of the tenant cabins, its lice and disease, its greasy pork and cornpone. Agee and his partner, Walker Evans, spend months living with three families in rural Alabama documenting their chores, rituals, faces, hopes, opinions and fears while at the same time exploring their own regional as well as human kinship to these vanquished people. Unlike the dark psychological exposees of the Caldwell/Faulkner/Tennessee Williams tradition, Agee and Evans offer a sober and compassionate vision of the Southern rural poor, "one in which the real people, probably just because they were real, were treated with tenderness and honor, not sympathy" (Kirby 61). This message is implicit in the last pages of the book as Agee concludes his docu-drama with the paradoxically powerful and delicate image of a leathery yet tender farm mother breast-feeding her voracious son, an image of perpetual abundance and love in the midst of unimaginable destitution, a sensual vision of mother and child that eclipses any portrait of the Madonna and the holy infant. The reader is left with a potent vision that reveals the humanity and decency that thrive among these people despite their great deprivation.

Another alternative to the southern gothic, Frank L. Owsley's The Plain Folk of the South, presents a version of the sharecroppers and rural poor with a Jeffersonian smack. As the simple title intimates, Owsley recalls and elevates the image of the independent agrarian as the backbone of the nation, insisting that their uncompromising honesty, religion, sense of family, and hard labor deserve no ridicule or anxiety but rather merit reverence and emulation. Unfortunately, these revisionary versions of the poor white's fail to filter into the popular American imagination. Says Kirby, Owsley, other Agrarians, and local-color sentimentalists could never compete for popular attention with Faulkner, Caldwell, and the liberal documentarists. Considering the successful Hollywood adaptations of the Gothic South in the 1950's and 1960's, it appears safe to generalize thatJeeter Lester and Flem Snopes were fixed, perhaps never to die. In thethirties, despite Agrarian outrage, the appearance of more realisticdocumentaries and novels, and finally good academic history in popularhistory and imagery, the school of poverty and degeneracy remained accredited. (Kirby 63) Here, in these contrary depictions of the Southern white lower-class found in the Southern Gothic and in the Agrarian response, we encounter the same dualistic labels of the poor white that have endured "since the first raw-boned indentured servants came to America from Europe" (Friend, 26). Entrenched in the antebellum South through a collaboration of black class- envy and planter class-legitimization, nearly a century later these regional stereotypes are still being perpetuated and perhaps even recreated for the national class-consciousness by popular Southern literature. Not only does America receive the image of white-trash: the whiskey-drinking, slow- talking, tobacco-chewing, wife-beating, cousin-marrying, bible-beating hillbilly but she also encounters the image of the plain-folk: the simple, honest, industrious, religious, loyal, patriotic, rustic good-ole-boy. Thus America is left with two distinct characterizations of the poor whites that often overlap and blur along moral lines and margins of acceptable behavior. For many "outsiders," however, the preeminence of the Caldwell/Faulkner tradition has fostered their acceptance of the term "redneck" in the pejorative sense, which consequently results in the national tendency to stereotype all Southern whites as: ...poor, semi-literate, ignorant, provincial,reactionary, violent, bigoted fundamentalist hicks who hated blacks, Yankees, Catholics, and foreigners (non-Anglo-Saxons and the Scotch-Irish). Some outsiders of a more romantic bent utilized the term in a less benighted sense as referring to a group of working-class, hell-raising 'good old boys' who spent most of their time drinking, fighting,and 'screwing around' in honkey tonks, hunting, fishing, moonshining, and congregating at stockcar races. The redneck, according to them, though quick to violence, was a rustic, simplistic, heavy-drinking, hell-raising, good- hearted macho who lived by a straightforward and 'honorable'moral code; there is a right way and a wrong way, and if one is wrong, justice in the form of physical punishment follows. (Roebuck & Hickson, 1) Interestingly, this "outside" perception of the Southern redneck contains elements from both sides of the dichotomy; it embraces the rusticity of the good-ole-boy while simultaneously recognizing the dark potential of the white trash mentality. Thus, in the national imagination, the same poor white has the potential to be both violent and good-hearted, to be immoral and yet honorable. Despite all of the possible meanings contained within the terms "redneck" and "white trash," it seems to be selectively attached to the same group of people depending upon time and circumstance. In other words, the term can imply condescension, ridicule, and dismissal or it can express pride, community identification, or admiration. According to Roebuck and Hickson's phenomenological study of the redneck, the common denominator "is being poor. Many Southerners apply the rubric to all poor people, whereas others use the term for poor people they do not like....Though some ambiguity is obvious in the way both insiders and outsiders utilize the term 'redneck,' all definitions refer to the components encompassed by or subsumed under social class" (2-3). Here, the excerpt suggests that these poor whites share the common symptom of economic inferiority which the phrases "redneck" and "white trash" convert to conclusions about behavior, morality, intelligence and class. As one self-proclaimed redneck unwittingly lends credence to this curious sociology, "Shit, anybody can be a redneck; it ain't who you be-- but how you think" (Roebuck and Hickson, 65). Although economics and social demography serve as the defining criterion for the poor white class in the national consciousness, the image has become quickly consumed in tumult of value judgement and cultural bias that indicts not one's financial status but one's social ancestry. Out of this blurred concept of the Southern working-class, emerges both a social ideal and social insult that the nation carefully appropriates to suit its own needs. Indeed, America has taken a once regionally and economically defined class, a social reality now altered by popular media and stereotype, and transformed it into a culturally constructed class from which it borrows and repudiates discriminately. Indeed, these different attitudes toward the same group of rural poor first formulated in the warring schools of Southern literature and in the theater of the thirties, forties, and fifties are picked up and delivered simultaneously in the popular media of the 1960's. Harper Lee's popular novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, depicts the idyllic small-town life of the Finch children and their mild and benevolent father only to have it shattered by the dishonesty, ignorance, and fear of the poor Euell family when they unjustly accuse a black man of rape. The town rallies behind the banner of racism to convict the black man despite Mr. Finch's unquestionable defense of his innocence. By the close of the novel, the reader is left with a rather confusing picture of the simple, happy lifestyle of small town Dixie wrecked by the surfacing of its racist and violent counter- ego. In actuality, a similar contradiction in the presentation of the South emerges in the newspapers, over radios, and on television screens all over the nation, thus reaffirming this socially- and literary-constructed dichotomy as truth. American readers and viewers in 1964, witness images of Commissioner Bull Connor in Birmingham, Alabama cruelly attacking black civil rights activists with high-powered fire hoses and snarling police dogs while a crowd of angry onlookers shout racial slurs and throw bottles and rocks. These media portrayals that reveal the blatant racism and prejudice of the Deep South simultaneously project the darker image of the violent and immoral redneck to the American public, thereby confirming the typology of the white working class first created in the Southern gothic writings of Caldwell and Faulkner. On the other hand, amid the civil rights chaos headlining news and flashing on t.v. screens, another form of popular media embraces a vision closer to the charming rusticity and simplicity of the small town South than to any depiction of a region overrun by Bob Euells or Bull Connors. In the music and philosophy of much of the counter-culture, the very same region responsible for so much evil and injustice, would also serve as a haven for nature and purity and yeoman virtue. Writes Jack Kirby, By the late sixties the popular back-to-nature sentiment so prominent in the hippie counterculture as well as with the middle class, was beginning to attach itself positively to rustic southern imagery. Bob Dylan, leftist yankee intellectual, visited Nashville and cut an album with Johnny Cash, down-home fundamentalist. Bonnie & Clyde's soundtrack provided incalculable momentum. Hippie communards sought cheap wilderness settlements in the South as well as in Colorado. "The Waltons" began ontelevision. The connections were made. Both counterculture and middleAmerica had discovered a different Dixie, not W.J. Cash's orCaldwell's, but Jefferson's and John Fox's land of nature and simplicity.(155) As this excerpt intimates, within the flow of cultural imagery and perception from popular media to the American mind, the ideal of the good country people blatantly collides with the seeming reality of the racist and uncouth white trash; but rather than resolving this cultural disparity, America seems determined to preserve and manipulate it. With these two conflicting versions of the poor Southern whites firmly cemented in the national consciousness by the late sixties, America now assumes the liberty to borrow freely from either pole to elevate or disparage the Southern lower classes. Indeed, such a freedom with this subversive cultural stereotype allows its operator to either appropriate and attach its virtues to himself or to belittle its moral and cultural deficiencies as a means of asserting his own moral and cultural superiority. In the following decades, America does not merely feel free to label and re-label, to admire and reject these poor white Southerners, moveover, she rips the white-trash stereo-type out of its regional and economic context, and, depending on the national sentiment of the time, counts it among her ideals or her great shames. In the late seventies, the white trash/good-ole-boy dichotomy persists in popular media although the nation blatantly favors a return to the rustic, honest, and neighborly typology of the Southern yeomen. Embroiled in the aftermath of counter-culture, the civil rights movement, and Vietnam, America makes a conscious effort to erase the negative image of the racist or destructive redneck and instead ennobles the family values, patriotism, and humble theology of the plain folk. During this decade, country music becomes an effective means of conveying this grass-roots message to the public. Although the blue-grass of Jimmie Rodgers and the early country and Western of Hank Williams and Gene Autrey have attracted fans to "Southern" music throughout the twentieth century, country music achieves a main-stream popularity America had never seen before. Country music ballads and their star singers are heralded all over the nation so that by "1970 there were 650 AM 'all country' radio stations in the United States and Canada. California alone claimed the twenty-four which collectively reached the largest audience. By mid-1975 the number of AM and FM country stations approached a phenomenal 1,150, as hundreds of older stations around the nation hastened to capitalize upon the explosive popularity of a music described only pejoratively as hillbilly" (Kirby 136). The prominent themes of love, heartbreak and reconciliation, loneliness, regional pride, old-fashioned values, and even a little "hell-raisin'" seem to assuage a nation recently bereft of its sense of national identity. Explains Katie Lyle, "The lyrics and tunes of country songs portray an aspect of the American scene that appears to be fairly constant in a world where few things endure unchanged for life" (141). Indeed, America jumps upon this sense of permanence conveyed in the country songs and embraces its implied egalitarian notion that people are the same everywhere despite differences in wealth and status. As the ousted Richard Nixon declares during a 1974 visit to Opryland, "Country music makes America a better country" (Kirby 133). Ironically, Nixon never heeds the twanged croon of the plain folk and himself becomes a symbol of the fragmented and valueless America from which its people seek refuge and stability in the bosom of old Dixie. During the national crises of Watergate and Vietnam, America begins to cling to this notion of rustic simplicity, family values, and old-fashioned religion found in the country music that seems to be taking over the national airwaves. As a result, images of "good country people" begin to pop up in advertising, on the political front, and in television versions of the ideal American family. If by the mid-seventies, America has tired of burger wars and t.v. dinners, Colonel Harlan Sanders equipped with white suit, white hair, and Kentucky gentility invites all to come to Kentucky Fried Chicken for some down-home Southern chicken, mashed potatoes, and biscuits, an advertising campaign that sent sales booming and led to franchises in Alaska, Mexico, Japan, and Abu Dhabi (Kirby 136). A bit more modern version of the same Southern stock character, appears in the political spotlight to counter the indignities and trespasses of the Nixon administration. Espousing the role of the simple and patriotic good-ole- boy, Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina "was a character out of fiction. Heavy, grey and in his seventies, he personified the country's amazement and righteous indignation at the crimes of the Nixon administration, quoted the Bible and the law from memory, and charmed millions with his learning and wit. With country musicians and television's Walton family, he embodied the new respectability of the South" (Kirby 137). Moreover, the 1976 election of the rather obscure Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, to the presidency of the United States, reveals the firm commitment the nation has made to the small-town mystique and its adoption of the good-ole-boy version of the Southern white stereotype. But perhaps the greatest evidence of the national appropriation of the virtuous "good country people" can be found in the enormous popularity of television's "The Waltons" that lasts throughout the decade. In the midst of political upheaval, war, inflation, disco, designer drugs, rising divorce rates, and energy crisis this vision of a simple family living atop a mountain in central Virginia during the Depression serves as the familial ideal for the entire nation. Despite their obvious poverty, the Walton family is clearly distinguished from the white trash element of the Southern poor through their strong family ties, their dedication to religion, and their reliance on fundamental virtue and morality in spite of the hardship and misfortune. For those who love the show in the South, "The Waltons" serves as a reaffirmation of those basic Southern values and ideals often forgotten in the darker Southern stereotype of redneck or white trash. At the same time, those fans in the North do not admire the show so much for its affirmation of a "Southern" way of life so much as for its presentation of the timeless values, enduring family relationships, and a simple harmony with nature that seem to be quickly disappearing in the modern world. Moreover, as the show gains popularity among the national audience, it begins to lose its regional context; the Waltons become more than an example of Southern good country people, they become the ideal American family, the role model for all other American families regardless of where they live. "It created a national reference whose very Southerness began to evaporate," explains Kirby, "No Pittsburgher could personally relate to Ty Ty Walden's cotton patch; it set Southerners apart by definition. But "The Waltons," where the actors' poor attempts at Virginia accents got worse as the years passed, evoked a set of responses with an appeal far beyond the Confederate borders" (146). At the same time the stereotype of the "good-ole-boy" is becoming decontextualized in the national mind, inevitably its dark companion, the stereotype of white trash becomes de-regionalized as well. As the role of poverty in the determination of social status is soon overwhelmed by the role of tastes and values in American class-consciousness, the label "white trash" is now applied to selective members of the white underclass not because they fall below a certain economic standard, but because they fail to adhere to a certain standard of decorum and taste. Hence the rustic, mild-mannered, moral, and unassuming Walton's living in a clean and simple farmhouse, wearing overalls and starched shirts never threaten to fall into the undesirable realm of white trash. Suddenly, other television shows depicting the South have to make that distinction between the good folk and the trash. The wildly popular Dixie action serial, The Dukes of Hazzard, with its fast cars, tight-jeans wearing Duke brothers, and voluptuous cousin Daisy comes precariously close to crossing the thin line of acceptability. Although there's no doubt that the Duke family is somewhat low class, the producers of the show make a conscious effort to present them as the good guys whose dedication to doing the right thing, harmony with their rural environment, and skills at driving really fast allow them to foil the schemes of the corrupt sheriff and his bumbling deputies. Even the memorable theme song maintains that they're "just good ole boys, never meanin' no harm," making it explicit that although the characters' appearances might suggest white trash and all of its negative connotations, the Dukes are just good-hearted country people trying to do right and have some fun and adventure at the same time. Indeed, John-boy Walton, Col. Sanders, Dolly Parton, Atticus Finch, Jimmy Carter, and even Bo Duke stand at the conservative end of the Dixie spectrum in stark opposition to the Lesters and Snopes of the Caldwell/Faulkner tradition that persists in popular cinema. During the seventies however, America chooses to adopt the former and disregard, even disdain the latter. Whereas the Waltons and Kentucky Fried Chicken become representative of what America wants to see in itself, what it wants to call American, the remnants of the gothic school portrayed by Bob Euell, the murderous and sodomizing mountain men of 1972 film, The Deliverance, and the suspicious and violent rednecks of the 1970 film, Easy Rider, are universally acknowledged as the crude offspring of a backwards, uncultured and ignorant South. Although these contradictory portraits of the South seem to describe completely different worlds, the regional boundaries have not changed-- "The Waltons" and The Deliverance not only share the same geography but also assume its Southern ancestry and its culture; both media images consciously tap into these two distinct perceptions of the South now ingrained in the public mind. So, how does America reconcile these seemingly mutually exclusive stereotypes? How can the world of the good-ole boy co-exist with the world of hostile, gun- toting redneck found in Easy Rider? Perhaps Lawrence Levine's description of the elite response to the influx of immigrant and lower-class culture during 19th Century America in High Brow/Low Brow, can help explain the national response to the Dixie invasion of the late seventies. As Dr. Levine details the upper-class reaction to the spilling over of this foreign culture into the public domain, This is precisely where the threat lay and the response of the elites was a tripartite one: to retreat into their own private spaces whenever possible; to transform public spaces by rules, systems of taste, and canons of behavior of their own choosing; and, finally, to convert the strangers so that their modes of behavior and cultural predilections emulated those of the elites. (177) Though the class groups differ as do the circumstances in Levine's formulation, one can at least draw a loose parallel between his eruption of a lower and somewhat unacceptable culture in the public domain and the explosion of the once very regionally contained and often disdained culture of Dixie into the national arena of popular culture in the seventies. Specifically, America seems to follow step two in its attempt to mediate the threat of the immorality and lawlessness of white trash culture while simultaneously embracing the perceived virtues of its "good-ole-boy" counterpart. Indeed, the nation takes this new fad and adjusts it to pre- existing canons of fashion and taste and acceptability, thus socially excluding the bad element that inevitably accompanies this Southern duality. Just as the wealthy landowner would often step down from the big house and visit the shacks of the poor whites for a drink of whiskey or to discuss a hunt, middle and upper-class Americans would step down from the heights of haute-couture and sport a pair of blue-jeans or cowboy boots. Despite these friendly visits, however, the landowner quickly returned to the big house confident that the poor whites knew their place, just as the owners of these jeans and boots display their designer labels prominently, so that those wearing the cheaper denims and pleather boots never become confused about their position in the national caste-system. Thus, America freely takes the bits and pieces of the cultural stereotype that it desires, restores them to a level of social acceptability and then uses this newer, popular version to distinguish itself from the undesirability of the original possessors. As America enters the eighties decade, it has moved from the pure country of "The Waltons" and from the sexy yet safe good-ole-boyism of "The Dukes," to regions beyond rural South found in the glamour of the Urban Cowboy genre. Now, the electric bull and the neon honkey tonk, designer boots and jeans, and Charlie Daniels become all the rage from New York to Dallas. It almost seems that Americans adopt the very fashions and tastes of the Southern working class they once scorned. Rather than adopting the actual morals and virtues perceived in the "good country folk" ideal, they adopt the denim and leather hoping that by wearing these material symbols, the positive connotations affixed to its original wearers, the honesty and simplicity and industriousness, will necessarily accompany the garb and become associated with its new, upscale owner. In other words, Americans want to associate themselves with all of the desirable parts of the stereotype by appropriating its "look"-- but at a tasteful level; they want to present that down-home image without the distasteful accompaniment of the stereotype's next of kin, the "white trash." The prominent display of designer labels helps to maintain this class distance by sending the glaring message that the person wearing these jeans or that shirt has far too much money and taste to fall within the realm of trash, however by wearing such simple and comfortable clothing, he is clearly just a good 'ole boy-- relaxed, natural, and unassuming. Ironically, as members of the white lower classes attempt to buy into this fad by wearing the same jeans and boots albeit a cheaper version, the very absence of the discriminating brand-name, those all-important class markers, cages them within the "white trash" label they attempt to escape. Says an article in New York Magazine, "White trash has ever been in the eye of the beholder, and as a lay classification, it remains a way to pinion someone to his roots, to deny him upward mobility" (Friend, 26). Hence, emerges the formula already expressed in Lawrence Levine's third step in the elite response to the oozing of lower class culture into the public domain: not only do the upper classes appropriate and reform these lower class tastes, but in doing so they also convert "the strangers so that their modes of behavior and cultural predilections emulated those of the elites." Rather than precipitating a movement toward a greater class homogeneity by this incorporation of common clothing into popular fashion, the American upper classes only remind their social inferiors of the vast distance that lies between them. Nevertheless, this does not hinder the poorer whites from participating in this material struggle for status within their own means as Michael J. Weiss acknowledges, For the vast majority of less well-heeled Americans, consumer behavior is governed by whatever is affordable. For every Blue Blood Estates resident who collects exotic stamps, there's a Share Croppers counterpart sending away for commemorative plates. In that cluster of poor rural hamlets concentrated in the South, status can be a $2.50 bottle of VidalSassoon shampoo rather than the generic store brand....Share cropperresidents who own mobile homes at two and a half times the rate of thepopulation at large are able to emulate the well- to-do with prefab luxury options in their trailer. (Weiss, 126) In this genuine but fruitless attempt to follow the elite channels toward upper mobility arises the peculiar paradox that governs the national class consciousness: as these poorer whites attempt to imitate the cultural standards of the upper classes, by planting flamingoes and birdbaths in their lawns in place of the Van der Rohe sculpture far beyond their means, as they attempt through this economically-determined materialism to connect themselves to the classes above, their cheap copies and substitutions only further steep them in the "white trash" stereotype. Moreover, this failure to achieve the tasteful norms only confirms one of the fundamental prejudices behind the "white trash" epithet: that one is born into the class and that his tackiness, rudeness, and immorality is as much a part of his genetic makeup as his eye color. And in this decade of vicious materialism, any visceral evidence that validates or fulfills the stereotype becomes a popular source of humor. In other words, remove the designer labels and America gets dangerously close to blurring class distinctions, and to alleviate that threat, America laughs at any conventional images of the redneck or white trash. As a result, a comedy like National Lampoon's Family Vacation takes the conventional Yuppie family of the Griswolds, with their Izod Lacoste knit shirts and their family station wagon, and pits them against Cousin Eddie and his clan, the epitome of a white trash family. Yet beneath all of the hilarity of the contrast, emerges a bleak portrayal of a beer-drinking, welfare-drawing, ill-mannered, incestuous, tacky lower class white family that contains all of the cruel assumptions and disdain of the stereotype. Similarly, Jeff Foxworthy's best- selling author, You Might Be a Redneck If..., capitalizes on redneck jokes and humorous illustrations that depict overweight, unkempt, cigarette- smoking, unshaven rednecks and their female counterparts. Americans all over the country buy this little book that contains lines like: "You might be a redneck if you've been on T.V. more than once describing what the tornado sounded like" or "You might be a redneck if you think French onion dip is an exotic tobacco product." However, while America laughs at these jokes or at Cousin Eddie's white patent leather shoes, they are quite consciously disassociate themselves from the "white trash" subjects of the humor. A reader comfortably snickers at the line, "You might be a redneck if blowing a tire means a new flower pot for the front yard," because he knows that he would never put such an unsightly object in his front yard but that some social inferior would; his mirth at another's conception of beauty or good taste necessarily distances him from that person and his culture. By the middle of the decade, America has mediated that Gothic threat of the "white trash" Southerner first perpetuated in the writings of Faulkner and Caldwell by appropriating and redefining their fashions and tastes to a socially acceptable standard, by placing the poor whites in material subservience to upper class dictates of class and decorum, and ultimately, with the potent weapon of laughter, by confining "white trash" to its appropriate place in the social hierarchy. By the close of the eighties, it seems that finally the nation has milked the once regional stereotype of the "plain folk" of all of its perceived merit and then caged its gaudy kin within the inescapable confines of the "white trash" label. Even should a pink flamingo pop up in a middle-class yard or two, or should someone wear her Guess jeans a bit too tight, these slight cross-overs safely fall under the new slogan "White Trash Chic," haute-couture's safety net for those who tend to stray from its prescribed boundaries. Certainly some white trash is allowable as Ernest Mickler, head chef of "white trash chic," writes in his best-selling cookbook, White Trash Cooking, The first thing you've got to understand is that there's white trash and there's White Trash. Manners and pride separate the two. Common white trash has very little in the way of pride, and no manners to speak of, and hardly any respect for anyone or anything. But where I come from in North Florida you never failed to say "yes m'am" and "no sir," never sat on a made up bed, never opened someone else's icebox, never left food on your plate, never left the table without permission, andnever forgot to say "thank-you" for the teensiest favor. (Mickler, 1) As Mickler insinuates in his own provincial drawl, suddenly there's a class division within the white trash culture itself, that underneath the cheap veneer that seems to unite white trash, there's still some of that plain folk dignity and courtesy that separates the good from the bad. Thus, under such acceptable auspices, White Trash Cooking lines shelves next to the cookbooks of the finest cuisine and is heralded by critics in Newsweek and People Weekly. Harper Lee refers to the Mickler's work not as a cookbook but as "a sociological document of such beauty-- the photographs alone are shattering. I shall treasure it always... Now that it's harder than ever to identify the genuine article on sight-- with two generations of prosperity white trash looks like gentry-- we've long needed something other than the ballot box to remind us of their presence: White Trash Cooking is a beautiful testament to a stubborn and poignant heritage" (Mickler). Indeed, as America leaves behind the materialism of the eighties, there appears a movement to follow Mickler's prescriptive and delve beneath the socially-constructed surface of white trash stereotype and trace its lineage back to the same common ancestor, the simple folk once so admired in the Agee and Owsley versions of the New South. Just as the agrarian writers once countered the Gothic school, now nineties purists challenge the material pettiness of the decade past by once again turning the label "white trash" on its head. Indeed, America, turns to the "no bullshit" attitude and the "guilt-free freedom" that had originally inspired its fears of the redneck and his white trash entourage. As Jonathan Williams writes of Mickler's distinction between "white trash and "White Trash" in the preface to White Trash Cooking, "Those in the lower-case category would never on earth admit to the charge; while just about every honest, uncouth American is eager to become deified with capital letters in the latter guise." Thus, at the outset of the nineties, it appears that America is ready for a healthy dose of realism, and, as a result, television's number one politically correct, wealthy, and attractive Cosby family gets displaced by the overweight, loud-mouthed, underclass Connor family of the hit show Roseanne. America begins to glut its conscience and its darker fantasies on the plethora of talk shows and reenactment dramas like Cops and Rescue 911. The allure of the all-American family once found in the down-home Waltons and then in the attractive and prosperous Keatons of the popular eighties sitcom, Family Ties, gets supplanted by low-class and somewhat dysfunctional cartoon characters found in The Simpsons and in Beavis and Butthead. According to contemporary America, these shows project the real America that has heretofore been placed on the backburner or swept under the rug, the true American identity that has been hidden under Ralph Lauren and Izod Lacoste and Mercedes Benz of the eighties. "With The Cosby Show they were all doctors and lawyers going off to Princeton and walking around the house with $1,000 outfits," says Mike Judge, creator and voice of MTV's Beavis and Butthead. "All through the eighties I thought there were way too many good looking people on TV-- you just start feeling inadequate. I thought it would be cool to have something on TV where you don't have to be ashamed that you live in a dumpy house and wear dumpy clothes and watch too much TV. Along with Married...With Children and The Simpsons there's a power-to-the-lower- income-white-people trend" (Friend 28,30). Embroiled in this new "white trash chic" craze, America seems more than willing to face its own inadequacies during each dose of daytime television and then purge the guilt in a second dose of evening sitcoms that depict other families with financial difficulties and troubled kids, problems they perceive as real and poignant in their own lives. Nevertheless, in what began as an honest attempt to find some sort of common ground, to expose the true national character, America has disclosed more than she bargained for; we seem to have forgotten that although Mickler's "white trash" and "White Trash" supposedly represent different strains of behavior, they both share the same name; and as the public arena welcomes the cultural influences of the well-meaning poor, then inevitably their slovenly kin will follow close behind. As journalist Tad Friend reminds us of our foolish presumption, "White trash behavior is neither a delightful plastic flamingo on the front lawn of American culture nor a glimpse of existential freedom" (31). Now, contemporary America finds itself overrun with John Wayne Bobbits, Joey Buttafucos, and Tanya Hardings as well as governed by a President connected to a real estate scam and accused of sexual harassment. As a result, the nation so quick to "subscribe to the backlash-against-eighties-excess theory" finds itself heaped with scandal and immoral excess and wallowing in disillusionment (Friend, 28). The seeming freedom and cultural independence that had attracted contemporary Americans to the white trash mystique just a few years earlier now appears to have degenerated into moral laziness, a lack of shame and conscientious privacy, and an utter disrespect for sacred institutions and customs. In trying to throw out many of the artificial restraints of society and class that became so constrictive in the eighties, contemporary America unintentionally discards many of its rules and canons necessary for the survival of a healthy society. Perhaps writer Dorothy Allison best explains the lesson America fails to learn in the nineties when she says, "The form of trash is attractive, but the content is not. Americans are into the form without the content. True trash does not care what happens, because we don't believe that our good behavior will get us anywhere" (Friend 28). Indeed, as our reliance on stereotype to govern our perceptions of social class reveals, it seems more accurate to say that America does not merely adopt the form of white trash, but rather, she invents it and then repudiates any leftover morsels of authenticity. What began as a regionally defined class in the antebellum South, now confronts America from T.V. screens and the front page of the National Enquirer as a legitimate strain of our national culture, albeit one defined not by economics but by the tastes and values of America's upper classes. From the origination of the duality of the "plain folk" and the "white trash" out of the antebellum South to its selective maintenance throughout the twentieth century, we witness "white trash" not as an actual group of people but rather as a group of cultural assumptions that first the South and then the nation thrust upon various people to justify her national inadequacies or national virtues, as circumstance required. Although in times of social fragmentation or profound disillusionment America often turns to the virtues of the "plain folk" as a temporary identity to appease and reunite us under the feigned notion of a common and virtuous heritage, we can never entirely forget the dark companion that travels along with this rural ideal. Throughout the twentieth century, fears of a Jeeter Lester or a sodomizing mountain man or a perverted Cousin Eddie maintain the social animosity and blatant prejudice America heaps upon those unfortunate enough to be deemed "white trash." And in the 1990's, when the comedy of the road-tripping Griswolds get replaced by two murderous teens on a cross-country killing spree in the film Natural Born Killers, America must face the possibility of a generation gone bad. Now, concerned scholars, parents, journalists, and national leaders speak and write of this nightmare come true, this white-trashing of America. Suddenly, the nation is confronted by the fulfillment of its greatest fears-- the moral degeneracy and violence, the lack of shame and integrity once only elements of an elusive stereotype seem to get legitimized daily on television and in the nightly news. But before wagging fingers and shaking heads knowingly at all of the Roseannes and the Geraldo Riveras across the country, America must remember that this cultural horror is not the legacy of the people themselves but a creation of our own prejudice and stereotype. Poverty and material tastes do not determine a groups' behavior so much as the expectations placed upon it by its social superiors and inferiors. Just as the positioning of the poor whites between the black slaves and the wealthy landowners determined the role the whites played in the Southern class system, the cultural and moral inferiority assigned to lower class whites by upper and middle-class America determines the role they play in the contemporary social hierarchy. Those whom the upper- classes brand "white trash" are given no chance for redemption; there is no escape from the impenetrable confines of a stereotype that insists upon the inherency of your poor taste, your stupidity, your immorality and indecency, or your unacceptable ancestry. "White trash is about scars that won't heal....Being unredeemable 'is part of the Roseanne-and-Tom shit,' Dorothy Allison says. "They're always going to be figures of contempt-- there's no reward for not acting trashy, so why shouldn't they do what they want'" (Friend 31). Indeed, America is not the innocent victim of the long-feared white trash uprising; we've merely fallen prey to our own societal Frankenstein.



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