The Poor White

Historians have long been at pains to dispel the myth that antebellum white society in the South was divided into two classes, planters and poor whites. In 1860 D.R. Hundley wrote Social Relations in Our Southern States, in which he divided the white South into seven social ranks ranging from "The Southern Gentleman" to "The Poor White Trash." The members of each group are distinguishable not so much by financial affluence (because at the extremes of each is some overlap), but by a certain quality of bloodline which manifests itself in manners and physical characteristics. Of the gentleman Cavalier, for example, who represents near-perfection on all accounts, Hundley states, "to begin with his pedigree, then, we may say, the Southern Gentleman comes of a good stock," and "besides being of faultless pedigree, the Southern Gentleman is usually possessed of an equally faultless physical development" (Hundley,27-28.) He is on average six feet tall, is graceful and athletic, and possesses, in all, a physique which unites firmness and flexibility. This is meant to be contrasted with his negative image, The Poor White Trash, who is descended from Celtic criminals deported to America. He is bony and lank, with a "sallow complexion, awkward manners, and a natural stupidity or dullness of intellect that almost surpasses belief" (Hundley,264.)

If later scholars discredited the belief in the old world aristocracy of the planter class, establishing that most Southerners - plantation owners and landless squatters alike - were descended from the same middle class anglo stock, the importance of the yeoman-poor white distinction remained. Just as Hundley's "Cotton Snob" must not be mistaken for a Gentleman, the "Cracker" must not be equated with the Yeoman Farmer.

In The Mind of the South W.J. Cash discusses the effects of the plantation system on the poorer whites of the South. The market for cotton ruled the development of the Southern frontier. In his hunger for new soil, the cotton planter pushed the small independent farmer onto inferior lands. The demand for cotton channeled funds for the improvement of infrastructure into routes which served only the plantations, leaving the backwoods farms to their obscurity and inaccessibility. This isolation kept the lower classes from social and economic mobility.

To Cash, the poor white trash were simply the weakest link among the backcountry population, " whom these effects of the plantation had worked themselves out to the ultimate term" (Cash,23.) Yet while all classes may have been descended from a single class, time had wrought considerable changes and had set down clear lines of demarcation between them. In Cash's account the poor white is again marked by "a striking lankness of frame and slackness of muscle" along with "a shambling gait, a boniness and mishapeliness of head and feature" and the characteristic "sallow faded-out colorlessness of skin and hair" (Cash,24.)

It is clear from a modern perspective that the physical appearance of the poor whites can be more realistically attributed to poor sanitation, health care, and nutrition than to pedigree. It is not the aesthetic, however, which is the Cracker's most telling side. Hundley writes, "the chief characteristic of Rag Tag and Bobtail ... is laziness" (Hundley,262.) Beyond any look or mien, the Cracker is distinguished by his enormous capacity for sloth.

According to Hundley, the poor white is lazy even in the pursuit of pleasure, "too lazy to distill honest peach or apple brandy, like the industrious yeomanry, they prefer to tramp to the nearest groggery with a gallon-jug on their shoulders, which they get filled with "bust-head", "rot-gut" or some other equally poisonous abomination" (Hundley,268.)

It is by the test for industry that the poor white is most easily differentiated from the yeoman. Writing in 1728, William Byrd of Westover is appalled at the idleness of the backcountry people, whom he likens to "the lazy Indians." He finds that they cultivate only the bare minimum for their own survival. The livestock are left to forage for themselves in the swamps and marshes, the people preferring to forgo milk for seasons at a time rather than practice some small husbandry, "thus the indolent wretches during one half of the year lose of advantage of the milk of their cattle" (Byrd,184.)

In The Plain Folk of the Old South, Frank Lawrence Owsley argues that the difference between Yeoman and Cracker is the difference between a herdsman and an agricultural lifestyle. The men of the piney woods who "seemed shiftless" would "sit almost motionless for hours like a lizard on a sunny log, whittling transparent shavings from a piece of pine or spruce and occasionally squirting a chicken that came too close" (Owsley,35.) To the outside observer, these men looked to be at leisure, but were in fact profiting from the hogs and cattle grazing nearby. This herding economy is a stage in the development of the frontier, and is followed by farming. Therefore the Poor White and Yeoman are characters which belong in successive, if somewhat overlapping, landscapes. Nevertheless where the overlap did take place, the Cracker was seen not as antecedent but as inferior to the Yeoman.

Of the many literary examples of the Poor White, none is more typical than Pap from Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Pap's hair is "long and tangled and greasy" and drapes over his eyes like vines. Where not covered by his clothes ("as for clothes -- just rags, that was all") or hair, Pap's skin was white, "not like another man's white, but a white to make a body sick, a white to make a body's flesh crawl -- a tree-toad white, a fish-belly white" (Twain, 23.)

In Huck's mind there is a clear distinction between people like Pap and himself and "quality" like the Grangerfords. But as clear to the reader is the distinction between Huck and his St. Petersburg playmates. Although his company is sought by the other boys, he is clearly not a member of the social class to which they and their families belong. Association with Huck is forbidden by the town's mothers --- not because of his shabbiness or his father's drunkeness, but because of their cause: Huck is poor white trash.

A more comical example of this distinction is evident in The Fight by Augustus Baldwin Longstreet. The two opponents are sturdy yeomen; the instigator, Ransy Sniffle, clearly belongs to the "Cracker" population.

To Longstreet's The Fight