Holly Larson, Palm Beach State College
I teach English at a community college in Florida. Many of my students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Very few have a sense of entitlement; they work one or more jobs to pay for school and other expenses. They have experienced hardship and know what it means to struggle. So when I mentioned this past semester that I was working on teaching a literature course on white trash, I was expecting a mixture of curiosity and interest. Yet, the overwhelming reaction was a combination of disbelief, confusion, and mockery. One student asked why I would spend an entire semester on racists with poor hygiene. Another told me there was no need to read about white trash; all I had to do was spend a day with his white trash relatives to see how “crazy as hell” they all are, while another student inquired if the literature we will be reading is similar to redneck jokes. I admit I even took a swipe at the course I proposed telling a friend that I am very well prepared for such a subject growing up with errant cousins who are missing teeth from bar fights, living from welfare check to welfare check, and revolving in and out of jail from bouts of alcoholic rages.
All these reactions, including mine, highlight how white trash culture has been pathologized and mocked. White trash is used as a barometer of how low one can go where respectability, hope, and dignity are absent. Even the struggling working-class measures the distance it is from the white trash to position itself outside the realm of humiliating poverty and disdained behavior. Writer Carolyn Chute captures this in her novel, The Beans of Egypt, Maine, where her character Earlene is advised and pleaded by her father, Lee Pomerleau, to never visit or talk to their next door neighbor. “Daddy says the Beans are uncivilized animals. PREDATORS, he calls ‘em. ‘If it runs, a Beans will shoot it! If it falls, a Beans will eat it,’ Daddy says and his lips curl. A million times Daddy says, ‘Earlene, don’t go over on the Beans’ side of the right-of-way. Not ever!’” (3). Lee justifies that although he and his daughter, Earlene, are the struggling working-class, they struggle day-to-day as good abiding citizens with a strong religious foundation to keep them from ever sinking so low as the Beans. The “trashiness” of the Bean family provides a stark contrast to Lee’s working-class lifestyle: he may not have the economic security as the middle-class, but he has its respectability and dignity; he is the mobile poor who can climb out of poverty into material and social stability and respectability. In Lee’s eyes, Beans are white trash forever damned to stay stagnant with bad attitudes, dysfunctional relationships, inconsistent work, and uncontrollable bouts of violence.
The challenge, then, in teaching white trash literature is to not further pathologize a group of people like the Beans who have been easy targets of ridicule and mockery in popular culture, from the television shows Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Raising Hope, and Moonshiners to blue-collar comedy tours to cholesterol-high, fat-filled white trash cookbooks. Immerse in popular culture, my students and I bring these biases to the classroom. As such the classroom is never a neutral space; it is always a contentious space where belief systems are questioned and challenged, and identities are constantly negotiated. To teach a course on and about a group of people who conjure such disdain and dismissive laughter, I will first expose the stereotypes about white trash by showing a video clip from the Trailer Park Boys (2006) and an excerpt from Diane Rowland’s book White Trash Zombie, while analyzing its cover depicting a half-clad tattooed woman with stark white-blonde hair shaved on the sides and blood running down her mouth. I will ask the students what stereotypes are at play and how these characteristics challenge the myth that American society is classless and all one needs to do to achieve economic and social success is to work diligently.
White trash literature’s very premise is that class is not only alive and thriving as a caste system in the U.S., but it is also as much about economics as it is about racial and social identities. Therefore, to teach white trash literature, I must expose the students to the issues surrounding class in the U.S. I will use five primary texts – Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing,” Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” Erksine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, Carolyn Chute’s Beans of Egypt, and William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” – in addition to four secondary sources providing theoretical framework – excerpts from Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, Matt Wray’s Not Quite White, Janet Zandy’s Liberating Memory and Dorothy Allison’s Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, & Literature. Reading these texts throughout the semester, the students will explore what constitutes working-class literature and how white trash literature differs from it.
Theory on Working-Class Literature
Studying working-class literature, student readers will have the opportunity to define and stabilize the somewhat nebulous and slippery word “class.” My students will begin with Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation” whose protagonist Mrs. Turpin underscores how confusing and convoluted it is to define class when she thinks to herself each night as she drifts to sleep about class social structure:
On the bottom of the heap were most colored people . . . [and] next to them – not above them, just away from – were the white-trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged. Above she and Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land. But here the complexity of it would begin to bear in on her, for some of the people with a lot of money were common and ought to be below she and Claud and some of the people who had good blood had lost their money and had to rent and then there were colored people who owned their homes and land as well. (491)
Indeed, as Mrs. Turpin tries to make sense of where she and her husband comfortably and respectfully fit in this bottom-to-top class hierarchy, she realizes that class position is rather subjective and certain lifestyles do not fit perfectly in any class ranking.
Aware of Mrs. Turpin’s confusion, not sure where she stands, I will discuss how I define class as a socioeconomic status and a relationship to the means of production where class is determined not only by one’s job and income, but also by the social and cultural prestige and power one has in society that is based on education, family, neighborhood, among other social factors. Providing a theoretical framework to understand the complexities of class, I will introduce the students to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction that refers to class as a formation of different capital: economic, social, cultural, and symbolic. Economic capital refers to economic capacity, such as salary and inherited wealth, that determines if one is able to pay for, say, private elite schools and exclusive clubs. Social capital refers to social networking, such as the people with whom one interacts. Cultural capital refers to cultural tastes, for example, the type of books one reads and the clothes one wears. And symbolic capital refers to cultural capital that has been legitimized as correct and upright and is therefore seen as prestigious and powerful. However, as a class we will discuss how Mrs. Turpin’s obsessive nocturnal habit of organizing respectability and power by the amount of capital she and her neighbors have and realizing how some may have social and cultural capital but lack economic capital highlights how class status is not a simple vertical structure.
Bringing in another leading voice on the genre of working-class literature who strongly believes that U.S. is a class-caste system, I will introduce the students to Janet Zandy’s writing. In Liberating Memory, she argues that “class does count. It shapes our lives and intersects with race, ethnicity, gender, and geography in profound ways” (8). She goes on to say, “I think it is important to unpack the difference between the working-class and middle-class” (9). This distinction is critical, Zandy contends, because the working class has a legitimate way of knowing and doing that can challenge our assumptions about equality, fairness, and even what constitutes knowledge. Through working-class literature, the student readers are given the opportunity “to ask and begin answering hard, practical questions. Who defines smart and stupid, and why? Who misuses language, and for whose benefit? Who writes theory, and why? Who goes to university, and why? Who does the academy serve?” (Kadi 47). Basic, fundamental questions such as who are seen as legitimate generators of knowledge and whose ways of knowing are valued are addressed. Knowledge is suddenly seen as a polemical issue shaped by our political, social, and cultural realities.
Theory on White Trash Literature
So although it may be important for my students to “unpack the difference between the working-class and the middle-class” to uncover the ways of knowing among the working-class, is it not as equally important to differentiate between the so-called noble poor and the distrusted and reviled poor, known as white trash? Reading Tillie Olson’s “I Stand Here Ironing” and Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, the students will have an opportunity to examine if there is an ethically and socially qualitative difference between the protagonist in Olson’s story who laments leaving her oldest daughter alone for many years as she ventures out to make a meager living, and the main character Jeeter in Caldwell’s novel who is too lazy and self-consumed to provide for his family. Who would not feel a pang of sorrow and empathy for Olsen’s narrator who wants to reach out to her daughter, Emily, and provide her the comfort and stability of a middle-class life but knows she will continue to fall short of that? Likewise, who would not feel a sense of disgust and disbelief for Jeeter who is so indifferent to his own family and irresponsible in how he handles his farm? The noble poor are easier to read and discuss with students for there are elements of the character we can identify with, and admit this freely. But the reviled and lazy poor? Who would identify? And those who do, would they feel free to discuss this in a non-biased, joke-free atmosphere?
Providing more theory as a foundation for the students to build upon as they explore these questions, the students will read excerpts from Matt Wray’s Not Quite White that points out how the name white trash “reveals itself as an expression of fundamental tensions and deep structural antinomies: between the sacred and the profane, purity and impurity, morality and immorality, cleanliness and dirt. . . . [It is] a monstrous, transgressive identity . . .” (2). In a deeply rooted racialized society such as the U.S. where whiteness continues to be the norm, the term “white trash” is an oxymoron: the word “trash” contradicts and dilutes the sacred and normality of the word “white”; it sullies and tarnishes white’s purity and privilege. Therefore the term “white trash” underscores that class is never a single identity; it is always shaped and complicated by other factors, such as race, sexuality, gender, and region. Further, white trash literature highlights what is deemed by both the white middle- and working-class and among communities of color, particularly the Black community, as “in-your-face” offensive behaviors and beliefs among a subgroup of poor whites. Not every white working class individual is identified and labeled as white trash. John Hartigan Jr., in “Name Calling,” states, “White trash importantly objectifies . . . both the stigmatized condition of whites in poverty and the emotionally charged, fearful image that they present to working- and middle-class whites. White trash locates ‘those people’ both in their homes and in the cultural imaginary of more ‘respectable’ whites” (50).
So, then, who are the white trash? Turning to early twentieth-century writer William Faulkner and late twentieth-century writer Carolyn Chute, the students will see that they are Faulkner’s Snopes of Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, and Chutes’ Beans of Egypt, Maine, who are crude and rugged, living from day to day, struggling through bad relationships and bad tempers. The emphasis is on the subjective and ideologically loaded word “bad”: an open defiance of middle-class cultural aesthetics and social behaviors. Bad refers to the loud, drunken fights in front of the house; the dilapidated, rusted car filled with fast food wrappers and other unwanted junk; the painted-chipped nails, Wal-Mart beaded-string necklace, and five-dollar cheap clothes.
The term “white trash” has a specific origin: it was originally used as a derogatory term by free Black slaves to refer to a group of poor white shareholders who utterly lacked any economic and social power, despite being white in a white racist society where whiteness reaps privileges and rewards. Wray writes, “Poor white trash must have seemed to many of them [free and enslaved Blacks] an apt term for those whites who did not rise or live up to their ideals of industry, laboring not at all, or only in the most degrading jobs, toiling beneath or alongside the slaves” (43). The term quickly became a part of the national lexicon where, interestingly, abolitionist writers, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Gilmore Simms, used the word to conjure fear among their sympathizers of lazy, raging, poorly educated, and ill-mannered poor southern whites whose dangerous behaviors were influenced and perpetuated by the slave-plantation system of the South. Stowe called the poor white trash as a “miserable class of whites [that] form, in all the Southern States, a material for the most horrible and ferocious mobs. Utterly ignorant, and inconceivably brutal, they are like some blind, savage monster, that, when aroused, tramples heedlessly over everything in its way” (qtd. in Wray 57-8). White trash, then, complicates how Americans talk about and conceptualize race in binary terms: White supremacy and white privilege oppressing Black personhood and knowledge. Not dismissing that whiteness is at the very center of American society, normalized as the correct way of being and acting, white trash literature shows that Peggy McIntosh’s essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack,” asserting how whites have access to a symbolic “backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” that grants them social and economic privileges, is rather simplistic and myopic: not every white person experiences his or her whiteness in the same way, nor does every white individual have equal access to that metaphoric backpack . Whiteness is experienced differently because it is shaped by several variables, notably class. Whereas whiteness for many is a site of privilege, for the white trash it is cultural and social disadvantage.
Writer Dorothy Allison contends, “We were not noble, not grateful, not even hopeful. We knew ourselves despised. My family was ashamed of being poor, of feeling hopeless. What was there to work for, to save money for, to fight for or struggle against?” (18). White middle-class assimilation was unobtainable for many of Allison’s family members because they were seen by teachers, neighbors, and law enforcement as irreparable “trash.” Allison asserts, “I am certain that if we had remained in South Carolina, I would have been trapped by my family’s heritage of poverty, jail, and illegitimate children . . .” (21). So how does one behave and view oneself labeled as the ungrateful poor? How does one assert what little dignity and pride one has in the face of such painful and cutting class hatred? One wears the mockery and disdain of being white trash as a badge of honor, protection, and identity. The white trash are like Mimi Bobeck from the sitcom The Drew Carey Show whose polyester bright K-Mart-like gowns, cheap makeup, and loud behavior intentionally prevent her from fitting in among the white middle-class. She is mocked for her oversized body, obnoxious laughter, and bright lipstick; hence, she plays up this trashy image in defiance of middle-class aesthetics and values; she may be mocked but in return she mocks the middle-class lifestyle for its sterility and conformity. Her “in-your-face,” loud body and behavior is a form of resistance.
White Trash Literature
Students will hopefully see how the term white trash problematizes the term working-class, knowing all too well that there are the respectable working-class and the dishonorable working-class; the “I-can-identify-with-you” working-class and the “no-way-in-hell-I-would-identify-with-you” working-class. If, as I claimed earlier, working-class literature encourages the student reader to see resilience and knowledge in the ordinary, then white trash literature, as a subgenre of working-class literature, offers a deeper view into the ordinary that shows the ambiguity, confusion, and contradictions of the everyday world; it acknowledges the messiness of life and the imperfection of humanity within the ordinary. Allison embraces this messiness, stating as white trash “we have the right to demand our full, nasty, complicated lives, if only to justify all the times our reality has been stolen, mismade, and dishonored” (166). Allison refuses to pit the noble poor against the ungrateful poor into a neat binary construction. “The choice becomes Steven Spielberg movies or Erskine Caldwell novels, the one valorizing and the other caricaturing, or the patriarch as villain, trivializing the choices the men and women of my family have made” (15). Instead, her family members who drink too much, live off of welfare, and drop out of school to have children are much more than drunkards, welfare recipients, and teenage mothers. They long for loving relationships, rewarding work, and peaceful nights in the midst of their chaos. To acknowledge these contradictions and complexities is to stop pathologizing the so-called bad and ungrateful poor; it is a way to assert their full humanity, as well as my students’ who may be experiencing the same reality.
Seeing contradictions and complexities in everyday life, then, is a good beginning for student readers to understand and explore white trash literature; however, the question of whether the author is himself/herself white trash is a pertinent one that needs to be addressed. To put it simply, can an economically comfortable and socially prestigious person write a white trash story? That is, does one need to be a bona fide member of white trash culture to teach white trash literature? No. Novelists Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner were not white trash, unlike Carolyn Chute and Dorothy Allison, yet wrote vivid and honest depictions of white trash characters who resist being defined and categorized as degenerates according to white middle-class standards. The Snopes of Mississippi are as complicated and chaotic as the Beans of Maine. Chute captures this in her postscript to The Beans of Egypt, Maine, arguing that in the midst of the pain and hardship of poverty, there is love. “Yes, love under stress is a lot different from love on the beach or love on the ski slopes or love in a fancy restaurant. But are we so innocent as to think that in the homes and hearts of money and medium-sized money there’s no stress, no breaking point, no nastiness?” (277). There is integrity in the hard living of Abner Snopes and Beal Bean. Indeed, they are not the noble poor: both can be brutal, narrow-minded, and cold. And both have had run-ins with the law. Yet, underneath the rage, there is genuine care, no matter how dysfunctional it appears. This is not the case with Erskine Caldwell’s Lesters of the Tobacco Road. The characters are flat and lampooned. Jeeter’s utter disregard for his family, his son’s obsession beeping the car horn, his wife’s sole focus on obtaining a new stylish dress to die in, and the grandmother’s pathetic slow starvation reads as one big comic relief: an easy target to point out and laugh with mockery. Analyzing this novel, my students will examine if Tobacco Road is a white trash novel? I would argue that it is not – there is no resistance but circus-like entertainment for cheap laughter at the expense of a socially and economically vulnerable group of people. Caldwell’s novel is the very opposite of what white trash characters are about: the contradictions and complexities of humanity in the everyday struggle with poverty. White trash characters raise challenging questions for student readers: Should they take white trash characters seriously? Do they demand student readers look at the pretty and the ugly, as well as the brightness and the dreariness of everyday life? Moreover, do these characters force the students to think beyond dualistic and reductive thinking on race and sexuality?
These questions help frame students’ reading of white trash literature as they navigate through three salient issues – race, hypermasculinity, and hypersexuality – during the semester to see and understand white trash characters as real and multi-dimensional.
Racial Identity in White Trash Literature
Student readers need to know that white trash has fundamentally a racialized component to it: “white” juxtaposed with the word “trash” reveals the social construction of race and how whiteness has never been a monolithic, stable identity. Historically, there have been groups of white European descendants who were seen as impure whites, or less than white: in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they were the Irish and East Europeans. They were considered to be violent, licentious, cognitively slow, and disease-ridden. During the first and second wave of immigration heading to the U.S. during the late 1880’s and early 1900’s many Irish and East Europeans were detained at Ellis Island and returned to their native countries deemed biologically and socially unfit to assimilate into the American culture. Meanwhile, around this time from 1880’s to 1920’s, editors Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz, in White Trash: Race and Class in America, state there were numerous research on poor whites by studies of “Eugenic Family Studies” who argued that their data showed “large numbers of rural poor whites were ‘genetic defectives’” (2). These second, third, and even fourth generation poor White Americans were seen “as incestuous and sexually promiscuous, violent, alcoholic, lazy, and stupid.” These vicious stereotypes “remain with us to this day,” Wray and Newitz contend, pointing to current public thinkers as Charles Murray who “have resurrected this line of biological determinist thinking, blaming white trash for many of the nation’s ills and using pseudoscientific eugenic theory to call for an end to the welfare state” (2-3).
Many white trash characters are depicted as dirty, off-white (many times described as yellowish or purplish), and freakish. Analyzing Chute’s novel, students will discuss how Beal Bean, son of a white retarded mother, is described by his neighbor Earlene (whom he later marries after raping her) as having “nails [that] are dirty, chewed up. The pimples on his face are like volcanoes getting’ ready to bust and drown the world. In school under them lights, all Beans are purple” (65-6). Meanwhile, his Uncle Reuben has“[s]ome of his fingers a missing. One nail is shaped like a claw, and with this one he picks something from his back teeth” (40). There is something animal-like in the descriptions of their hands: like animals, they dig and ravage for survival. There is nothing refined or quiet and respectable about their bodies. Yet, the Beans respectable, noble poor neighbor Lee Pomerleau “has perfectly shaped feet, the nails lavender crescents, always clean” (154).
Returning to Flannery O’Connor’s respectable white middle-class character Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation,” students will analyze how O’Connor’s protagonist is like Lee Pomerleau who sees herself as “whiter” and nobler than the white trash woman she is waiting with at the doctor’s office. Always cognizant of one’s social class, Mrs. Turpin looks around and notices that the “well-dressed lady had on red and gray shoes to match her dress. Mrs. Turpin had on her good black patent leather pumps . . . and the white-trashy mother had on what appeared to be bedroom slippers, black straw with gold braid threaded through them – exactly what you would have expected her to have on” (491). Mrs. Turpin not only looks at the feet but the woman’s hands, noticing that she “was running her leathery fingers through the child’s pale hair” (497). She is disgusted at the sight of the white trash woman. Thankful for being a respectable and fairly attractive white middle-class lady, she thinks to herself, “If Jesus had said to her before he made her, ‘There’s only two places available for you. You can either be a nigger or white-trash,’ what would she have said? ‘Please, Jesus, please,’ she would have said, ‘just let me wait until there’s another place available’ . . .” (491). She thinks of this desperate choice and refuses to be white trash; she would have none of that. If she had no choice to be a respectable white middle-class lady she would be at least a respectable inferior version of herself as a black woman. White trash, for Mrs. Turpin, are on the same level as “niggers” but unlike some blacks that can be respectable, though still inferior to white middle-class folks like her and her husband, white trash lacks any form of respectability. They are void of any social grace and positive quality. Hence, in Mrs. Turpin’s eyes they are not truly white, for whiteness, Mrs. Turpin believes, is inherently respectable and socially upright.
Hypermasculinity in White Trash Literature
Hypermasculinity manifested through anger is another common issue in white trash literature my students will have a chance to explore. Whereas anger among the so-called noble poor is a strategic and effective political tool, channeled into union work or social activism, anger among the white trash is a weapon. It is how they arm themselves against class hatred. Reading Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” students will examine how Abner’s anger may very well be self-defeating, destructive, and mean-spirited, but it is also his own desperate way to assert pride as a landless sharecropper during the Reconstruction South. He refuses to play in Hegelian terms the subservient role as the servant and therefore through his raging acts of setting wealthy property owners’ barns on fire, he is announcing that they cannot play the role of the master because there is no servant to legitimize the role. Abner openly defies any form of middle-class respectability; it is not social acceptance or respect he seeks but power to destroy and intimidate. Faulkner notes that “the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his . . . being, as the element of steel or powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion” (163). He has his own moral code to follow: blood is thicker than water. That is, families stick together and protect one another. This is the only justice Abner honors.
When I have taught this short story in the past, many students are rather dismissive of Abner’s character, labeling him as simply pathological, evil, and abusive, while sympathizing with his son who loves his father but wants to live an emotionally stable and respectable life. A few students have even referred to Abner as the devil. He is reduced to a caricature representing subhuman qualities. This is not a misreading, yet I challenge my students to see beyond a simple and dismissive characterization. Perhaps, I share with them, Abner as a character is aware of this. That is, he is consciously aware of the belittlement and trivialization of poor white men like him. And feeling powerless to this projection of him, he becomes what white middle-class people fear: white trash.
During the Reconstruction era when this story takes place and up to the twentieth century, many middle-class folks read and heard of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet’s character, Ransy Sniffle, a degenerate poor white man who ate clay and lived off of dirt. “The ‘dirt-eater’ popularized by Longstreet was a grotesque comic character notable for his poor diet, his physical deformities, his laziness, apathy, and low intelligence . . .” (Wray 40). Most likely Faulkner knew of this popular and comical character. He is a pitiful and disgusting figure lacking any form of social, cultural, and economic dignity and power. Abner, however, has his anger. That is, his anger differentiates him from Ransy Sniffle. Respectable white folks may laugh at and treat Ransy Sniffle as a pathetic little child who does not know any better, but they would not dare laugh at Abner: Abner is a fearful character who would harm anyone who challenges and disrespects him and his family. He is white trash that people do not “mess” with. One, then, could perhaps say that Faulkner intentionally makes the Snopes mean and rageful to openly defy easy and stereotypical characterizations of poor whites by respectful white folks like Major de Spain, for whom Abner works. Abner’s rageful acts of burning barns is both his resilience and his imprisonment: it gives him a sense of power to face another day as a poor white man, yet keeps him disdained as a poor white man.
Hypersexualization in White Trash Literature
The female body is also a point of contention in white trash literature. In “Class and Feminine Excess: The Strange Case against Anna Nicole Smith,” Jeffrey Brown writes white trash women’s bodies are always a site of mockery and constant observation. The white trash “cartoonish” female body as being “too much body” is held in contrast to the quiet and disciplined white middle-class female body that he describes as “[t]he persistent image of the glowing white woman as an ideal . . . both the symbol of white virtuousness and the last word in the claim that what made whites special as a race was their non-physical, spiritual, indeed ethereal qualities” (80). Anna Nicole Smith embodied this contrast. She was the epitome of white trash hypersexuality: as a teenage mother, a former waitress at a cheap restaurant and stripper in sleazy bars, a triple-D breast-size and platinum-blond hair beauty, and an overweight woman on her reality TV show, she was a constant joke whose body took on a carnivalesque show for audiences to stare at and humiliate. Simply put, Smith was nothing more than her body and cartoonish sexuality that offended all the rules for white middle-class femininity and respectability.
The students will see this with Carolyn Chute’s character Roberta who is a very tall, large-boned, and painfully skinny woman with coarse hands, soiled clothes, and numerous babies lacks a quiet, disciplined body. Descriptions of her, such as possessing a grotesque “mouth for a smile, the teeth like the far-apart teeth of a Doberman, long, fat, yellow, sharp” and “in front of her undershirt, its rapt flowers of spilled coffee, and some year-old blood shaped like the paw of a cat” (111), position her body outside the respectability and demure of white middle-class femininity. More troubling for obtaining white middle-class femininity is Roberta’s incestuous relationship with her nephew Beal. Babies fathered though not acknowledged by Beal are everywhere: in her attic, under her feet, on her porch.
Her neighbor, Donald, a white middle-class professional immediately notices Roberta’s loud body and numerous babies: “The tall woman [Roberta] is so tall she divides Donald’s rearview mirror into two clean halves, white grass to the left, white grass to the right. And everywhere, shuffling and darting are babies and the tall woman’s peach-color hens” (109). She is “too much body” for Donald; all he notices is her unnatural height, baby-puked smell, soiled clothes, and hyperactive babies. With all her babies and endless pregnancies, her blatant and raw sexuality overwhelms Donald. Yet, her so-called “grotesque” body is not a site of mockery for the reader; rather, Chute humanizes and complicates Roberta’s body and its desires. Roberta desires Donald. Undeterred by Donald’s distance and utter confusion over what to make of her, Roberta approaches Donald, looking at him eye to eye. She drives him home when his car battery dies, revives his battery, and then kills a rabbit and cuts the best part of the meat for him. She does all this as a “matter-of-fact” desire; it is completely void of what is perceived as proper and coyish white middle-class femininity. Yet, she expresses her sexuality with such dignified rawness that Donald gently but firmly indicates to her that he has a very sick wife to whom he remains faithful. Roberta is a character the student reader neither pities nor ridicules; her desire is too complex for such simplistic dismissal.
It is impossible to romanticize and glamorize the white trash lifestyle. It is harsh and raw. But white trash literature challenges students to see more than a tale of pathology and social perversion. There is perseverance and resistance in the midst of the harshness, tedium, and rawness of the everyday struggle. The ungrateful poor, like the Snopes and the Beans, make the reader uncomfortable with their abrasive behaviors, raging outbursts, and unkempt appearances. There is no way to escape the reality of now, the reality of the material world of broken furniture, run-down trucks, and dilapidated homes. The reader must begin in the concrete world and remain rooted in it throughout the story. As such, it is a rare opportunity for the student reader to recognize how white trash characters resist being run down and ridiculed by poverty; how they find some sense of meaning in the pain and chaos of their lives; how they assert their own humanity in a society that sees them as inferior and degenerate. White trash literature, then, tells students that in the face of poverty and low status, one does not need to become a victim. Despite the odds, one can still be a fighting survivor.
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