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Peculiar Whiteness - Racial Anxiety and Poor Whites in Southern Literature, 1900-1965

Peculiar Whiteness

Racial Anxiety and Poor Whites in Southern Literature, 1900-1965

By Justin Mellette
Hardcover : 9781496832535, 212 pages, March 2021
Paperback : 9781496832542, 212 pages, March 2021

A deep, compassionate probing of how white writers misconstrued, manipulated, and distrusted poor southern whites


Peculiar Whiteness: Racial Anxiety and Poor Whites in Southern Literature, 1900–1965 argues for deeper consideration of the complexities surrounding the disparate treatment of poor whites throughout southern literature and attests to how broad such experiences have been. While the history of prejudice against this group is not the same as the legacy of violence perpetrated against people of color in America, individuals regarded as “white trash” have suffered a dehumanizing process in the writings of various white authors. Poor white characters are frequently maligned as grotesque and anxiety inducing, especially when they are aligned in close proximity to blacks or to people with disabilities.

Thus, as a symbol, much has been asked of poor whites, and various iterations of the label (e. g., “white trash,” tenant farmers, or even people with a little less money than average) have been subject to a broad spectrum of judgment, pity, compassion, fear, and anxiety. Peculiar Whiteness engages key issues in contemporary critical race studies, whiteness studies, and southern studies, both literary and historical. Through discussions of authors including Charles Chesnutt, Thomas Dixon, Sutton Griggs, Erskine Caldwell, Lillian Smith, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor, we see how whites in a position of power work to maintain their status, often by finding ways to recategorize and marginalize people who might not otherwise have seemed to fall under the auspices or boundaries of “white trash. ”


"The idea of whiteness is a peculiar invention, one with a tangled and complex history. We need texts that tell us how we got here and how whiteness became the standard while blackness was consigned to the margins. By examining depictions of poor whites and the idea of whiteness in a variety of literary texts—commercial as well as classic—Peculiar Whiteness helps us understand."

- W. Ralph Eubanks, author of The House at the End of the Road: The Story of Three Generations of an Interracial Family in the American South