Prior to the Civil War, ironically existing during the Jacksonian age of the common man, a genre
writing developed that dealt almost exclusively with poor whites and served as to solidify the stereotypes that have remained until the present day. Southwestern humor
can be credited with the origins of white working class characters as violent, ugly, unhealthy,
ridiculously religious, and socially backward.
humor had its heyday in the 1830's and 40's, acting as an anti-Jacksonian voice
during the great age of democracy. Andrew Jackson's emphasis
the will of the people and the
virtue of the majority was the actualization of the upper-class' greatest fears. A true democracy,
with power in the hands of the common man, was not desired by the elite class that occupied
government positions. An ideal existed that the educated and
cultured minority should make the decisions for the uncouth, incompetent majority. Jackson's
appeal in the South and West was particularly frightening to these Northeastern elites, as the
frontiersmen represented the worst of the under classes -- violent, rowdy and uneducated men
might somehow gain a voice in the government of the country.
The Southwestern humorists acted against such a movement. Most of these men were
from the professional
class, working as journalists, doctors, lawyers and editors. They typically wrote anonymously, at
least until their popularity was established. They wrote stories about a social group of which
were not a part -- the frontier man, the hunter, the confidence man of the poor whites.
Though some books were published after the popularity of the stories were established, the
majority of the humorists were discovered by and first appeared in William T. Porter's Spirit
the Times : A Chronicle of the Turf, Agriculture, Field Sports, Literature and the Stage, a
supposedly non-partisan sporting journal focused on horse racing. However, like most of the
humorists, Porter was a loyal Whig and Confederate sympathizer. His magazine was directed
toward an audience of wealthy Southern horse-racers and plantation owners. The humor was
created for the amusement of the upperclass as a device of contempt and derision for the lower
The trademark of Southwestern humorists was their use of the frame narrative.
In this style, the stories are heard in the vernacular, but are related to the reader as seen by an
aristocratic, composed narrator. The narrator provides a superior and disconnected vantage
point, looking down his nose at the lower classes and often including a didactic lesson at the
beginning and/or end of the story. This viewpoint enables the reader to scorn and ridicule these
hyperbolic caricatures with no room for sympathy or compassion. This is the ideal position for
the upper class to enjoy the privilege of their "not me" instinct -- reveling in the condescension of
look what I am not'.
One of the first humorists, Augustus
Longstreet, created an enduring character, Ransy Sniffle, in "The Fight" from Georgia Scenes
(1835). One of the earliest portrayals of "white trash", Ransy Sniffle will be echoed and
upon for generations of "white trash" characters to come. Sniffle is described by Longstreet's
narrator as having:
fed copiously upon red clay and blackberries. This diet had given to Ransy a
complexion that a corpse would have disdained to own, and an abominal rotundity
that was quite unprepossessing. Long spells of the fever and ague, too, in Ransy's
youth, had conspired with clay and blackberries to throw him quite out of the order
of nature. His shoulders were fleshless and elevated; his head large and flat; his
neck slim and translucent; and his arms, hands, fingers, and feet were lengthened
out of all proportion to the rest of his frame. His joints were large and his limbs
small; and as for flesh, he could not, with propriety, be said to have any.
Those parts which nature usually supplies with the most of this article -- the calves
of the legs, for example -- presented in him the appearance of so many well-drawn
If this passage originated from an actual description, this man is suffering, as many poor
whites do over the centuries, from malnutrition and disease. Such a passage should be a plea of
sympathy and social duty to care for the malnutrition of the poor. Instead it serves as a grotesque
of the depravity and
ugliness of the lower class -- a class to be avoided and laughed at from a distance.
humorists were Southern Whigs who utilized their medium to expound political views. Johnson
Jones Hooper is a prime example of this, creating the classic confidence man with his character,
Simon Suggs. His 1845 book, Some Adventures of Simon Suggs, is
set up as a campaign biography with Simon Suggs as a low class derelict who adopts whatever
persona necessary in order to rob, trick or injure other people for his own gain. His physical
description is not as strikingly grotesque as Ransy Sniffle, though he is undoubtedly a shifty
character. His stereotypically "white trash" characteristics fall under his personality traits and
of morals. He is
described as having
...head that is somewhat large, and thinly covered with coarse, silver-white hair,
a single lock of which lies close and smooth down the middle of a forehead
which is thus divided into a couple of very acute triangles, the base of each of
which is an eye-brow, lightly defined...Beneath...a pair of eyes with light grey
pupils and variegated whites...lids without lashes complete the optical apparatus
...The nose is long and low, with an extremity of singular acuteness, overhanging
the subjacent mouth...[which] measures about four inches horizontally. An ever
present sneer--not all malice, however--draws down the corners, from which
radiate many small wrinkles that always testify to the Captain's love of the 'filthy
Not only does this description play on the man as unattractive and filthy, but more
ascribes the characteristics of Andrew Jackson to this detestable fellow. Such a description
would have been immediately recognizable in the context of its time, allowing for the Whig
Hooper to take a stab at the Democratic Jackson.
The most famous of the Simon Suggs stories is "The Captain Attends a
Camp-Meeting". It is commonly assumed that Mark Twain based his chapter "The King
Parson" in Huck Finn upon this story of Suggs as the imposter revival minister who steals the
collections and takes advantage of the innocent young women. The sketch parodies the religious
zealots of the time, who would have been common figures in rural area camp meetings among
lower socio-economic classes of society.
A popular contributor to the Spirit, George Washington Harris created one of the
characters in Southwestern humor with Sut Lovingood. The epitome of the "durn'd fool"
type, Sut's self description is one of the most appropriate to serve as an upper class' view on poor
whites. Sut's description follows:
Every critter what has ever seed me, if they has sense enough to hide from
a coming calamity...jist knows five great facts in my case...Firstly, that I
hain't got nary a soul, nothing but a whisky-proof gizzard...Secondly, that I's
too durned a fool to come under military law. Thirdly, that I has the longest
pair of legs ever hung to any carcus, excepting only of a grandaddy spider...
Fourthly, that I can chamber more corkscrew, kill-devil whisky, and stay on
end, than anything excepting only a broad-bottomed churn. Fivety, and lastly,
kin get into more durned misfortunate skeery scrapes, than anybody, and then
run outen them faster, by golly, nor anybody.
This description fits the categories for poor white stereotyping that were laid out in the
introduction to this site. He is biologically, culturally, economically, regionally and morally
to the audience of upper class readers. In the tradition of black samboism, Sut's self-degrading
representation allows the
reader to once again feel justified in their detached amusement. He is too dumb to know that
he is being made fun of, and he must be happy in his lifestyle. Edgar Allen Poe must have
since he praised Southwestern humor as a correct description of "the manners of our
The next major literary movement to examine is postbellum literature. It typically revolved
around the plantation, with women and blacks portrayed
as content creatures dependent upon the powerful male planter for livelihood. The trouble in
stems from the dangerous, dirty and immoral poor whites who menace them and disrupt their
social order. The poor whites ambiguous social position makes him a threat to those who clearly
fall within established classes. And in such literature, as in society itself, there is no room for
In postbellum literature, unlike Southwestern humor, working class whites play a less visible
This genre created much of the old South nostalgia that dominated regional thinking for
many generations after the Civil War. The emphasis was on paternal plantation owners with
happy darkies as slaves, all living together in a familial bond where everyone appreciated
their place. When addressed at all, poor whites were treated with condescension.
Often portrayed as childlike, genetically inferior or merely tragic, there is seldom a developed or
human character from the poor white culture.
In The Forayers by William Gilmore Simms, we have a classic description of a "white
trash" male. His name is Joel Andrews, but he is called "Hell-Fired Dick":
his visage, scarred and savage, fully justifying the title which he bore. His eyes
great and rolling, owl-like, a broad but degraded forehead. The black hair came down over
cheeks and neck, work long to conceal some horrid scars. His lips had been split by stroke of
sabre. His teeth projected, very white, like enormous spades...he was a stout and swarthy giant -
short, thick, with a bull-dog figure and figure-head, and a neck, as he himself was apt to boast,
quite too short for a rope (54).
Along with this disfigured and violent description, which is easy enough to hate, a tirade against
those classes above him is included. This is another common method to allow the reader (upper
or middle class white) to feel justified in his condemnation of this class and to add to the fear of
retaliation from these inhumane people. Dick says:
You're one of them bloody, proud, heathen harrystocrats, that look upon a poor man, without
edication, as no better than a sort of two-legged dog, that you kin lay the lash on whenever you
see him lying in the doorway. And your son is just another sich a tyrant heathen! And you've
a long swing between you, living on the fat of the land, and riding roughshod over poor men's
Kate Chopin is writing around the same time. Although best known for The
her first collection was Bayou Folk in 1894. These stories often dealt with relationships
lower class Acadians and wealthy Creoles. Her Acadians are never allowed to truly cross the
of class. The Acadian men in her stories are lazy, backward and often brutish. Their only chance
for salvation is to be adopted by wealthy Creoles. But even in the event that this occurred, upon
adulthood, they must ultimately marry within
their original, lower class. The option of true social mobility, or a mixing of the classes, was on
equal status with mycegenation.
Following the trend, John Pendleton Kennedy creates the stereotypical poor white male as
brutal throughout his writings, as well. Wat Adair serves as an exemplum of Kennedy's male
characters, described as:
A thin, dark, weather-beaten countenance, animated by a bright restless eye,
expressed courage rather than hardihood, and seemed habitually to alternate
between the manifestations of waggish vivacity and distrust. The person of
this individual might be said, from its want of symmetry and from a certain
slovenly and ungraceful stoop in the head and shoulders, to have been protracted
rather than tall. It better deserved the description of sinewy than muscular, and
communicated the idea of toughness in a greater degree than strength.
Though not as harsh as the humorists' early depictions, Kennedy rounds out his character with a
and one of the most disgusting of literary passages, describing his pleasure as he skins a she-wolf
alive in "Horse-Shoe Robinson."
Moving into the twentieth century, the most recognizable images of poor whites come from the
novels of William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell. Faulkner's creation of the malicious Snopes
clan serves as a continuation of types which were established with the Southwestern humorists.
Supporting the claims of biological inferiority in poor whites, Faulkner describes Ab Snopes evil
motivation in "Barn Burning" as "in his blood". Sarty also experiences the "old fierce pull of
blood" and follows Ab out of "old habit, the old blood which he had not been permitted to
for himself, which had been bequeathed him willy nilly and which had run so long (and who
knows where, battering on what of outrage and savagery and lust) before it came to him."
Faulkner also describes the family in animalistic terms, calling Ab Snopes "wolflike" and the
daughters "bovine". Faulkner's portrayals are more complex and problematic than the humorists'
and post-bellum writers'. He was familiar with poor whites within his own
family and does not write from the detached vantage point of an upper class narrator. His
treatment lends an
ambiguity and complexity to the dichotomy of "white trash" and "good country folk" that is
seen elsewhere. But, finally, his most memorable and striking depictions are of a
New South run
by vengeful poor whites in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi.
Due to his complex writing style, Faulkner was not popularly read annd it is hard to say that his
impact was great on the poor white stereotypes held by the general population. However, his
partner in the
"Southern Gothic school", Erskine
Caldwell, wrote God's Little Acre, the
best-selling southern book of all time. It outsold Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the
by over a million copies. Many debates surround the writing of Erskine Caldwell. It is
ambiguous as to whether this can be read as a call for social reform or merely cruel grotesques
of the poor white class...or possibly a mixture of both.
But considering his
widespread appeal and the fact that Caldwell was usually referred to as a realist, we must
assume that his crass portrayals were taken as truthful representations by the audience that read
him. This sense of melodramatic violence and the revelation of a scandalous anti-society carry
attitude of exposing with intent to shock and stigmatize, not to reform or aid. Caldwell,
like Faulkner, emphasized the animal nature of man with his characters such as Jeeter Lester in
Tobacco Road. Later made into a film, Tobacco Road led the way for a popular
movement of Southern film
portrayals, widely spreading the acceptance of such stereotypes as truth.
The working class white was not only vilified in fiction, but in non-fiction as well. In 1941,
W.J.Cash's famous The Mind of the South was published. His theory about the
reorganization of the post-war South, which had destroyed the former idyllic society, was called
ideal." Cash's bleak picture of the South feeds former stereotypes set up in the literature of the
criticizing the piece, Kirby writes:
The savage ideal included a few occasionally endearing Southern traits:
hedonism ("hoggishness in enjoyment"), extravagance (particularly in language)
good-old-boyism, physical bravery, loyalty, patience in suffering. 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.
The traits considered "endearing" are strikingly similar to the characteristics forced on blacks
and the openly racist years of the American past. Such adjectives seem to continually fill the role
comforting those who degrade lower social classes. The happy darkies like to sing and dance,
just like the good ole boys like to fight and drink.
This must have been a popular sentiment at the time. A Duke University professor in 1947
referred to the position of
poor whites as resulting from, "improvidence, moral degeneracy, lack of ambition, and
indifference to profitable labor", in a leading sociology journal.
Though positive literary creation of working class whites were few and far between, a small
number of non-fictional works appeared in the 1930's and 40's to appreciate the hard working,
common man of the lower classes. Books like Owsley's Plain Folk of the South and
Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men present fairly dignified, if a bit condescending, portraits of
whites. However, what is shocking and
exposing sells, and Owsley and Agee could never compete with the likes of
Caldwell and Faulkner, whose books were also made into popular films during the 1940's and
these works are now considered important texts, Agee and Owsley had a very limited circulation
during their time.