Sarah Smarsh Can Tell You Everything You Need to Know About America’s Working Class

A powerful new memoir takes a personal approach to understanding the heartland.

Paul Andrews

Long before the 2016 election brought the “white working class” to the fore of political discussion, Sarah Smarsh was reporting from the heartland on the policies that created economic inequalities for the rural and working poor. Smarsh’s insight into the minds and bodies of the working class isn’t just an intellectual one, it’s intrinsic to her own experience growing up the daughter of Kansas farmers—something that becomes clear in her memoir, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. The book comes out Tuesday and is already on the longlist for the 2018 National Book Award for nonfiction.

Smarsh’s writing, which at points is addressed to the daughter she always feared she would have—like the teenage mothers in her family before her—shines with a combination of personal history and analysis of the invisible political forces that shaped her turbulent upbringing during America’s economic policy shifts in the ’80s and ’90s. Many chapters, crafted from extensive interviews with her family, provide a narrative of rich characters and history defined by working the land, teenage motherhood, a shifting economic landscape, and a deep sense of hard work. Her writing serves as a vehicle for understanding those dynamics—not just for the reader, but for Smarsh herself, who became the first in her family to escape the cycle of poverty when she left for college.

Smarsh has spent nearly two decades reporting on the working poor, with stories on topics ranging from health care access in rural America to Dolly Parton and for publications including the Guardian, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and Harper’s. In addition to her journalism, Smarsh has taught creative writing and journalism at Columbia University and Washburn University, where she was formerly an associate professor of English.

Mother Jones spoke with Smarsh about her new book and what the media gets wrong about covering America’s working class.

Mother Jones: You started this book in 2002, long before you could have predicted the conversations we’re currently having around working-class issues. Did the 2016 election force you to alter your approach to writing it?

Sarah Smarsh: I did have a moment of crisis—which I think a lot of artists, journalists, writers, and creators of all sorts also had—of like, “Oh, now this needs to become about the 2016 election because the world feels like it’s crumbling.” My intention was always to just bear witness to an experience, but not write any sort of polemic or champion any clear political position. I sat through that moment and just very intentionally decided I am refusing now to take almost 15 years of work and filter it through this nasty uprising. Basically, I still saw it as a family story. It just organically happened to be extremely relevant. 

MJ: What responsibility did you feel knowing your work might be interpreted as a representation of the lives of the working poor more generally?

SS: A lot of people right now are addressing class and writing about the white working class in a very reactionary way. But there are a small handful of us who have been talking and writing about those themes all along—for many of us, because we lived those themes. So what is now a national media fixation that is highly politicized was just the air I breathe. That economic reckoning, in just an understanding of class even being a factor in America, wasn’t news to all of us. 

I would be delusional if I thought I or anyone could write a book like this with pure objectivity. My political persuasions and personal opinions about right and wrong are inevitably baked into the book. But I did write it with a journalistic sense honed early in my career and make an earnest effort to subvert my own politics and emotional relationship to various social woes in our country.

I don’t think you will find in the book any political championing of one side or the other on my part. I hope you’ll find I took both political parties to task for what I see as the public policies that have been destructive for working-poor Americans—working middle-class Americans as well. We’re in such an age of outrage that we’re all aware of and everyone has their heartache. It’s a highly individualized moment in terms of the way a voice is represented.

MJ: In the book you talk about your own struggles with “right or wrong” and how those had been shaped by broader political events you didn’t necessarily understand at the time. Was writing the book, which involved extensive interviews with your family, a part of that reckoning? 

SS: I just think good nonfiction writing is a humbling of the self rather than an exploitation of the self. Usually, the critique of memoir is levied in the opposite direction. Part of [spending years on the book] was grappling with very personal and private pains and abuses. Part of it was seeing how those realities related to the big picture of this country from policy to politics. 

On a personal level, I forgave a lot of people who hurt me because I realized they’ve been hurt, too. And then, in a parallel way, politically I became much less strident or sure about many of my positions. That’s not to say I can’t still see a clear delineation between what I see as right and wrong in the public sphere. But seeing the distance I have traveled in terms of my psyche, my sensibilities, my understanding over the many years the book was written—I can’t know that and then simultaneously sit in a place of judgment about some other American with whom I disagree because my own views have changed to some extent. I feel very humbled toward people with whom I disagree in a way I think is dangerously absent from public discussion right now. 

MJ: You write about the struggles of rural motherhood and just the position of women generally, which often feels left out of national narratives about the working class. How did you approach gender themes in your book? 

SS: I struggled with how to either directly or indirectly handle gender. It had many permutations over the course of the writing. Initially, it was not directly addressed: It was just inherent in that I am a woman and within the false binary of gender that is often the losing end of the dichotomy. And most of the main characters in the book are women—working-class women, poor women, rural women—the ones who are often and egregiously left out of the discussion, even now. I knew that if I’m basically going to look at these various aspects of the American experience that intersect with class, gender was obviously one that needed to be included.

MJ: One of the big themes of the book is the intersection of poverty and health. That’s a theme that also often comes up in your reporting. Why do you think it’s such an important lens?

SS: Health care in this country, and the public policy around it, has shaped both the lives of people I love and my own. I truly never set out with some sort of mission to have a particular segment of my work devoted to health; it just felt like the most paramount thing to address for me. It’s one of those things, sort of like with the environment, [where] environmentalists will rightly say, “Well, we talk about all these other issues, but if we don’t stop annihilating our own home in the cosmos those things will become moot.” Like my essay “Poor Teeth,” which talks about my dad nearly dying of sepsis after a rotten tooth went untreated for lack of dental care—for a person on the ground just trying to survive day to day, there is nothing more important to him than the throbbing tooth in his head that is poisoning his bloodstream.  

MJ: Kansas is the geographic heart of the book, even as your family moves around. Do you think the state’s unique politics influenced your experience growing up in a poor, rural family?

SS: We like to think of ourselves as being in this highly globalized, post-place, 21st century moment where geography has little consequence. And this might be changing, but for me, someone born in 1980, it was the formative aspect of my life that I was born at the geographic center of the country in a state whose declaration as a free state basically, in large part, sparked the Civil War. Everything from policy to our understanding of ourselves and relationship to the country was in some ways shaped very differently in Kansas and other Midwestern states than it was in the South and Appalachia, which are often used in the media as the only examples of poor whiteness in this country.

The Midwest has a strong and really underexamined history in American politics, a legacy of prairie populism that had nothing to do with this far-right stirring that is currently being conflated with populism. It was usually about suffrage, often for women and people of color. It was about looking out for farmers in a climate already moving toward powerful factions being hostile to the small American farm. I didn’t know about those histories growing up, but I did experience it. Our previous governor was a Democrat named Kathleen Sebelius, and actually, Kansas and many Midwestern states have a robust legacy of feminism and representation of females in government.

MJYou’re often invited to speak about working-class issues and comment on how the media is handling coverage of them. What do you think are the biggest problems that still persist in media coverage?

SS: The biggest problem right now is that the language with which we are attempting to do so is an absolute disaster. We’re in a country that for centuries has been telling itself that here in America your outcomes reflect how hard you work, an idea which is so deeply ingrained that it really precludes any substantive discussion of class. So I often see people of economic privilege looking down the ladder, and they lump together the middle class, the working class, poor folks—all the “poor people.” The ways we perceive ourselves on that continuum are totally distorted, and the ways in which we talk about it are encumbered by a lack of nuance in our language. I’m hopeful now there is a sort of class reckoning happening in the country and we will develop something together as a society that works.

As for “working class,” it’s often focused on white laborers and ignores laborers of color who have had the same—or worse—grievances go undiscussed for centuries. And then, meanwhile, that white contingent is somehow presumed to be, or suggested to be, wholly conservative, and maybe even socially backwards. The way a more privileged media discusses that group is like an insult to every member of the working class.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Sarah Smarsh is currently a professor at Washburn University. The post has been updated to reflect that she no longer teaches there.