Date of Graduation

12-2014

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in English (PhD)

Degree Level

Graduate

Department

English

Advisor

Susan Marren

Committee Member

Lisa Hinrichsen

Second Committee Member

Robert Cochran

Keywords

Poor Whites

Abstract

The fact of class has been a powerful tool in the process of identity formation, particularly in the American South, which has been viewed as a region apart from the national imaginary. To counter this exclusion, Southerners have often relied on stereotypes. One of the most prevalent and tragic of these is the stereotype of poor white trash, a construction that has been utilized to insist upon elite white Southerners' exceptionalism and innocence and to assert their rightful place in American historiography. While it is difficult to calculate their level of success, as perceptions of the region have varied through the decades, the destructive power of white trash cannot be disputed.

This work utilizes a number of texts to demonstrate the myriad ways in which white trash, a relatively static construction of undesirable attitudes and beliefs since the antebellum era, has nonetheless been adapted to promote disparate agendas. At the same time, I explore the impact of the epithet on poor whites themselves, examining the stereotype's deleterious effects upon the economically disadvantaged and politically powerless.

In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe uses the threat of upper-class contamination by white trash to expose the ills of slavery. Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition demonstrates the displacement of the nation's long and shameful history of African-American disfranchisement onto white trash. In his Snopes trilogy, William Faulkner attempts to negotiate Southern past and present through white trash's intrusion on civilized society. Erskine Caldwell tries to shed light on poor white oppression, but his Tobacco Road is too steeped in stereotype to prove his assertions. In Deliverance, James Dickey fashions white trash monsters to exacerbate middle-class fears of poor white mobility, and Harry Crews's A Childhood: The Biography of a Place examines the poor white's initial resistance but ultimate resignation to the limiting functions of the stereotype.

A hopeful shift in poor white depictions occurs in Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina and Amy Greene's Bloodroot, two works which seek to confront the stereotype and call for a reevaluation of the beliefs and practices that have suppressed poor whites for centuries.

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