The Nature of the Stereotype
The poorest of working-class whites of both town and country have long been degraded in southern literature. Tapped "sand hillers," "tackies," "hillbillies," "wool hats," "tar heels," "clay eaters," "dirt eaters," "peckerwoods," "lintheads," and more recently, "trailer park trash" and "rednecks," they have been most often depicted, from William Byrd in the eighteenth century to Cormac McCarthy in our own, as simple-minded, shiftless, lazy and violent—a subspecies to be detested and ridiculed or, on rare occasions, felt sorry for.
Making the poor the butt of jokes is not unique to the American South, of course. Juvenal noted the trend in first-century Rome and castigated his fellow citizens for their thoughtless jibes at the unfortunate. "Cheerless poverty has no harder trial," he wrote in Satires III, than in its making "men the subject of ridicule."
Sociologists Michael Morris and John B. Williamson have traced the particular disdain that Americans have toward the poor to the influence of Luther and Calvin in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe when traditional Catholic views emphasizing charity were challenged by the Protestant ethic, which taught that God rewards hard work and that "the greater the material rewards received, the greater the extent to which the individual was doing God's will by being industrious." Poverty thus became a sign of God's disapproval. This view "provided an ideological buttress for repressive policies toward the 'undeserving poor "' (414).
It is not hard to see how this attitude became a part of America's thinking through the influence of the Puritans. "Seventeenth century colonial spokesmen," writes historian Neil Betten, "condemned the vast majority of the destitute as lazy and immoral." Betten adds that historians "have often pointed to this attitude among the Puritan elite of New England" (1).