White Trash Gothic


in Blog


When I learned that Harper Lee’s second novel is to be published, the first thought that came to my mind was: Will it be as biased against the white poor as To Kill a Mockingbird?

Like millions of other American schoolchildren, I was forced in public elementary school to endure a reading of this best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning classic of American literature, as though being traumatized by Charlotte’s Web in an earlier grade had not been punishment enough. My classmates and I were too young to understand what was going on and I thought the novel was tedious, confusing and creepy.

As an adult, I read the novel and watched the celebrated movie and found myself appalled for a different reason. A member, on one side of my family, of the Southern white gentry class to which Harper Lee belongs, I recognized that she was providing, in Atticus Finch, an absurdly idealized version of that class, in a melodrama that combines uplifting anti-racist sentiment with the most snobbish kind of “classism.” Unlike truly great 20th-century white Southern writers, like William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee was unable to transcend the class biases of the Southern gentry. Black Americans who object to the novel and movie for infantilizing blacks have a point — but it must be added that the book and film do so, by demonizing poor whites.

Here’s the plot of To Kill A Mockingbird:

A family of poor, shiftless and over-fecund “white trash,” the Ewells, lives in a small Southern town next to a trash dump in a hovel into which rats crawl through the missing windowpanes. Their bodies are crawling with lice, a fact that leads a teacher to send one of the boys home from school. Robert E. Lee “Bob” Ewell, the patriarch of the white underclass clan, it is strongly implied, subjects his daughter Mayella to incestuous rape. When Mayella tries to seduce an innocent young black man, Tom Robinson (who is a credit to his race, as they used to say), her enraged white trash father accuses Robinson of attempted rape. In his trial for rape that follows, Robinson is represented by a virtuous member of the Southern white gentry class, attorney Atticus Finch. Finch tries to make it clear that the white trash woman was the sexual aggressor, but in spite of his “slut-shaming” defense, the racist jury convicts Robinson and sends him to prison, where he is soon killed. Humiliated by the exposure of his white trash family’s sex secrets, Bob Ewell threatens Atticus Finch’s children, only to be killed by Boo Radley, a misunderstood, mentally-retarded, middle class neighbor with a heart of gold. Finch and the sheriff agree to pretend that Bob Ewell fell on his knife, something a drunken white trash lout might plausibly do.

When the plot is summarized directly in this way, rather than portrayed obliquely from the perspective of the endearing little girl Scout Finch, it is clear that the central struggle in To Kill a Mockingbird involves class, not race. The book’s theme is the class war within the white South between the noble gentry and the depraved poor. In a clever twist, thanks to the community’s racism the white underclass villain wins in court, but the gentry hero enjoys revenge at the end, thanks to a killing that is covered up by the local sheriff.

This is a very Southern story, surely. Liberal it is not. Harper Lee merely transfers dehumanizing stereotypes — those people are crude, lazy, violent, dishonest, unhygienic, oversexed, and breed too much — from black Southerners to poor white Southerners. And vigilante justice protects the Southern community from an underclass threat when the legal system fails.

In To Kill A Mockingbird, morality is correlated with class among the white characters. Near the top of the social order is the enlightened, noble, color-blind Atticus Finch, a member of the educated professional elite (oddly absent from the novel are the rich families who in fact dominated Southern society and for whom the lawyers, doctors, professors and other professionals mostly worked). Then there are the sturdy white yeomen, symbolized by the Cunninghams, who though poor don’t accept charity and are decent enough to be talked out of a lynching, in spite of their racism. At the bottom are the white trash like the Ewells, who rut like animals and whom the town is glad to be rid of when, like Bob Ewell, they are put down like the rabid dog that Atticus Finch reluctantly shoots in the book.

Any questions, children?

In its unreflective affirmation of stereotypes that bolster the white Southern class system, To Kill a Mockingbird is matched and perhaps surpassed by the poet and novelist James Dickey’s Deliverance (1970). Like Harper Lee, Dickey was the child of a Southern lawyer, and his novel, like hers, was turned into a movie that disseminated a cartoonish view of the white Southern poor to a huge audience outside of the South.

The plot of Deliverance is a variation of a familiar one from low-budget horror movies made exclusively for American drive-in movie theaters in the 1960s and 1970s: unwary suburbanites or their flower-child offspring stray into rural America, where they are attacked by malevolent, ogre-like white trash — hillbillies or bikers — who engage in rape, cannibalism or perhaps human sacrifice. (I can say this with some authority; in the 1980s, I declined an offer to write a series of low-budget drive-in flicks for a producer in Arkansas).

In Deliverance, the upper middle class heroes who stray into the dangerous woods are a graphic artist, an insurance salesman, a landlord and a soft drink corporation executive. The rural white Untermenschen include a mentally-retarded albino boy who plays the banjo, the product no doubt of stereotypical hillbilly inbreeding of the kind hinted at in To Kill a Mockingbird. There is also a toothless man, blacked-out front teeth being de rigeur for stage hillbillies. Like all hill folk, Dickey’s backwoodsmen are violent and break sexual taboos, forcibly sodomizing strangers in Deliverance rather than mating with their relatives or craving interracial sex, as in To Kill a Mockingbird. As in To Kill a Mockingbird, extra-legal justice is meted out to the brutal, perverse lower class miscreants and then hidden from the law in a cover-up (this is a beloved, classic Southern novel, after all!).

What does it tell us about the class prejudices of the American literati outside of the South that Deliverance, according to Wikipedia, is on Time magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923 and Number 42 on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best 20th-century novels? No matter how brilliant Dickey’s writing, imagine what the book’s reception in 1970 and since would have been, if Dickey’s white professionals had been terrorized by toothless black men in an inner city rather than by white backwoodsmen in the Southern countryside.

Like To Kill a Mockingbird and Deliverance, another contribution to what might be called the White Trash Gothic sub-genre of Southern Gothic fiction, Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell, was a commercial success, listed by Life Magazine as one of the 100 best books of 1924-1944 and spawning a Broadway play that ran for eight years and a 1941 film directed by John Ford. The white trash characters in Tobacco Road are even more grotesque than the ones in the novels by Harper Lee and James Dickey. The freak show include a poor white female preacher with an upturned, piglike nose named Bessie, who prostitutes herself before marrying a sixteen year old boy (she is practically a spinster compared to another character, Pearl Lester, who was married at twelve).

Caldwell and his wife, Margaret Bourke-White, a native of New York City, followed up with a book of captioned photographs depicting the Southern white poor, You Have Seen Their Faces. This dressed up voyeuristic class porn as documentary, like today’s “reality” television shows Redneck Island and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

According to Peter La Chapelle in Proud to Be An Okie, in a 1983 interview with Saturday Review Caldwell revealed that his characters in Tobacco Road were inspired by the work of his father, I.S. Caldwell, a Presbyterian minister and a leading Southern proponent of eugenics. In his 1930 book The Bunglers, based on articles written for Eugenics: A Journal for Human Betterment and published only two years before his son’s work of fiction, the Reverend Caldwell described an oversexed lower class white female religious zealot who at “the age of fifty odd years…married a school boy about sixteen years old.”

The eugenic sterilization movement in the South between the world wars was not what you might expect. Edward J. Larson in Sex, Race and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South (1995) explains that the Southern elite viewed alleged hereditary defectives among the white poor as a greater threat to the Southern white gene pool than blacks, who after all were prevented from mingling their genes with those of whites by anti-miscegenation laws. The champions of state-sponsored sterilization of lower-class white Southerners tended to be modern, forward-looking, educated, affluent Southern progressives, the class to which Atticus Finch belonged. Objections to sterilization tended to be based on religious grounds by Southern evangelical Protestants of the kind whom Northern liberals then and now love to hate.

Mid-twentieth century writers born into the Southern white gentry class like Lee, Dickey and Caldwell helped to persuade their Yankee readers that the main problem with the South is its lower classes, not its upper classes. In To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, the gentry liberal Atticus Finch stands up to the lower-class lynch mob. But while many poor whites were racist and took part in mob murders, the system of extra-legal violence against blacks (and also poor whites and, in the case of Leo Frank, Jews) reinforced the control of Southern society by the Southern oligarchy. Blaming Southern apartheid on poor whites is like saying the Tsar didn’t know about the pogroms, or that Hitler was shocked by the hooliganism of Kristallnacht.

Usually the Southern elite used members of the lower orders as its enforcers. But not always. In a new report by the Equal Justice Initiative, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” the following is found:

In 1918, when Elton Mitchell of Earle, Arkansas, refused to work on a white-owned farm without pay, “prominent” white citizens of the city cut him into pieces with butcher knives and hung his remains from a tree. In Hernando, Mississippi, in 1935, when white landowners learned that Reverend T.A. Allen was trying to start a sharecropper’s union among local impoverished and exploited black laborers, they formed a mob, seized him, shot him many times, and threw him into the Coldwater River. Also in 1935, Joe Spinner Johnson, leaders of the Sharecroppers’ Union in Perry County, Alabama, was called from work by his landlord and delivered to a white gang that tied him “hog-fashion with a board behind his neck and his hands and feet tied in front of him” and beat him. Mr. Johnson’s mutilated body was found several days later in a field near the town of Greensboro.

In the post-Reconstruction South, poor whites and poor blacks alike have been victims of many of the same political and legal institutions, designed to create a weak, divided and disfranchised work force for the benefit of landlords, capitalists and corporations. Poor whites as well as poor blacks were ensnared by the sharecropping system, debt peonage, and the convict lease system. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and other voting restrictions, between the 1900s and the Civil Rights revolution, disfranchised almost all blacks and many poor whites, creating an electorate dominated by the Finches, not the Ewells.

The Southern reality that Harper Lee, James Dickey and Erskine Caldwell obfuscated in their popular fiction was clarified by one of their contemporaries, a Southerner born like them into the gentry — the black gentry. In his address at the conclusion of the Selma March on March 25, 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. explained:

…You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.

Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. That is what was known as the Populist Movement. The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.

To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society…. If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. And he ate Jim Crow. And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.

Thus, the threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses alike resulted in the establishment of a segregated society. They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; they segregated southern churches from Christianity; they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; and they segregated the Negro from everything. That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society: a society of justice where none would prey upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality.

Dr. King believed that the black Robinsons and the poor white Ewells were victims of the same evil system run by the Southern aristocracy in its own interest. That’s the message that the school-children of twenty-first century America ought to hear, not the message that the white Southern poor are inbred, oversexed, incestuous, lice-ridden barbarians from whom decent people must be protected by force when the law fails.