on November 22, 2011
This is a remarkable book, synthesizing many earlier efforts to explain the distinct differences among different regions of the US - and Canada and part of Mexico too.
Some reviewers have stated that there is not much new here compared to Joel Garreau's 1980s book postulating 9 nations. I disagree - to me the historical thread tracing the origins of these differences are what makes it so compelling. Woodward's romp through that history is worth the price of the book. And there are startlingly different accounts of many of the historical events that are not covered in high school text books, that's for sure.
As a Canadian, it is interesting to see a treatment of history that, for Canadians, does not stop at the US border; and for Americans, does not stop a the Canadian (or Mexican) border.
I do agree with reviewers that Woodward's comments at the end of the book add too much personal opinion that diminishes the historical objectivity he shows elsewhere.
In summary, this is a compelling explanation of the enormous regional differences that make up the cultural and political landscape of America - and explains a lot about those same differences in Canada too. I strongly recommend this book to both those interested in North American History and those interested in its cultural and political trends.
on May 3, 2012
Colin Woodard has written the story of North America that should be taught in school in place of the simplified, sanitized, nearly fictional versions created, like all national histories, for the purpose of welding disparate peoples into a single nation by convincing them they all share a common history. I just got it back from loaning to a friend and re-read it. Like other reviewers here I had read Joel Garreau's "Nine Nations" in the 1980s and more recently Kevin Phillips' "The Cousins Wars" and Dante Chinni's "Patchwork Nation". They were full of interesting information, but Nine Nations and Patchwork Nation didn't address the origins or persistence of the notable regional differences among North Americans. I think Woodard's main thesis is that these regional cultures left their marks so deeply that we are no longer consciously aware of them, and should be. My experience living and working in several of these "nations" indicates that the regional differences do persist, though national media and advertising have masked them.
Reading "American Nations" I felt the pieces falling into place. I am undecided on the question of just how valid the thesis of eleven rival nations is as political science, but it makes for a fine explication of our history. And as cultural anthropology it provides the same level of explanatory power for understanding our cultural differences that the theory of evolution provided for understanding biology, or that the theory of plate tectonics did for understanding planetary-scale geologic processes. Just as those two sciences could not advance beyond the observational phase without a theoretical framework, this third dimension of historical immigration patterns transforms a two-dimensional hodgepodge of cultural observations into a meaningful three-dimensional portrait far more illuminating than the usual North-South analysis.
The map on the "American Nations" cover showed me that I grew up roughly where the Deep South, Appalachia, and El Norte meet in eastern Texas. We said we were "Scotch-Irish" but seemed to have no knowledge of or interest in how we came to be there, nor did I ever know anyone who was aware that there were early Spanish missions in the pine woods of East Texas or that there had been a large Cherokee village not four miles from my home. Later I learned that my own family had entered the U.S. in South Carolina from Barbados in the 1680s; little is known about them except that they were poor whites, so now we know there is a good chance they were indentured servants to Barbadian slave lords. How many Americans know the Deep South was founded at Charleston by migrants from Barbados? I never did. I had always lumped Tidewater, Appalachia, and the Deep South as "the South", but distinguishing them by origin explains a lot.
Now I have some insight into features of my county that have puzzled me for decades: why the tiny community where I attended school in the 1950s and 60s was clustered around its original plantation house, Cumberland Presbyterian church, and cotton fields (it was founded by a slave-holding family from Savannah, Georgia in the 1840s or 50s); why my neighbors had such casual contempt for blacks, Jews, Mexicans, Indians, Catholics, Chinese, and all other foreigners; why Ku Klux Klan actions were still fresh in older folks' memories; why blacks lived either in their own parts of town literally across the tracks or entirely separately in their own towns or isolated communities tucked away in the woods; why my parents were so puzzled that "our Negroes" seemed dissatisfied with our hand-me-down clothes and an occasional pig (I recall puzzled discussions of "What do they want?" implying lack of gratitude); why some neighbors said "Bide a wee" for "stay a while" or occasionally exclaimed "Gott in himmel!" but otherwise spoke in Texas drawl; why hillfolk in remote cabins in the woods practiced subsistence hunting using antique Springfield and Henry rifles, had a near-religious devotion to one-shot kills and complete disregard for hunting season and licenses, and distilled their own liquor (Appalachians for sure!); why there was a deeply ingrained presumption that gentlemen rode horses and peasants walked, so any poor farmer that came into oil money bought horses immediately (Deep South cavaliers influence); why there was hardly any familiarity with or emphasis on attending college, and disdain for the (rare) "know it all college boy" (Appalachian ignorance and apathy influenced by Deep South resistance to education for the masses); why employers referred to employees as "hands"; why our relatives in far southwest Texas seemed to us to live in a different country (they did - El Norte), while relatives in Tennessee and business associates in Mississippi seemed to come from an earlier and more violent time; why Cajuns in south Louisiana and southeast Texas seemed like such an anomaly in the Deep South in their Catholicism and complete disregard of racial boundaries (New France egalitarianism); maybe even why some blacks in East Texas practiced a strange mixture of Southern Baptist services and voodoo lore - one local black church was even named the Voodoo Baptist Church, and the pastor roamed the area on foot wearing an animal skin cape and carrying a long shepherd's staff (West Africa via the West Indies). Does any of this sound like growing up in Michigan? Have you lived in a state with a state religion? Texas has one, best characterized as southernbaptistfootball. Recognition that the region is essentially Appalachia with a strong Deep Southern influence and only faint traces of Spanish and Indian influence remaining provides the key to unlock all those scattered observations made as an ignorant but curious youth.
Knowing the origins of Yankeedom, the Midlands, Tidewater, and the cavalier South even sheds light on why North Dakotans and Minnesotans, coastal Northern Californians, Oregonians, Washingtonians, and my in-laws in Evanston, Illinois are so similar to New England Yankees, while my prospective in-laws in northern Virginia were deeply interested in our "bloodlines".
Appalachia and the Deep South were of particular interest to me, but the story of the founding and migrations of El Norte, New England, New Netherland, New France, the Midlands, Tidewater, the Far West, the Left Coast, and more recently the founding of the Canadian First Nation are completely fascinating and illuminating, and leave me embarrassed at how much is new to me. (Woodard could've made it an even dozen by including New Sweden, a Swedish colony along the Delaware River in parts of Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania from 1638 to 1655! I guess it didn't leave enough of a cultural mark.)
Lastly, I did not think Woodard unfairly favored the Yankees; his description showed the harsh, violent, and meddlesome parts of their Puritan cultural heritage along with the elements we still cherish (for much more detail see Fischer's "Albion's Seed"). The key difference is that Yankees changed with the times. Nor did I take the epilogue as an unwelcome interjection of personal opinion. I read it as unflinching commentary that grappled with unpleasant realities and made some educated extrapolations regarding possible futures for the U.S. and North America. Woodard is not the first to speculate along these lines of fracture, as he notes. And I have made the same comments on "the Baptist equivalent of sharia law" since the conservative coup of the Southern Baptist Convention in the mid-1990s. The Deep South has been a reluctant participant in the U.S. federation and has routinely made threats to withdraw since the Articles of Confederation days; in the 2010 mid-term election we again heard southern politicians talk of secession. That would be either puzzling or shocking without this deep background. Can a nation-state cobbled together from Dutch, Spanish, French, and multiple waves of incompatible English colonists, along with unwilling Indians and Africans, really hold together for another 200 years? Maybe a mutual divorce based on irreconcilable differences would eventually result in more compatible second marriages for all or even decisions that they prefer to go it alone.
And really lastly - I've enjoyed and learned nearly as much from the reviewers and commenters here as from the book.
on November 22, 2011
If you like your history big, all-encompassing, different, quirky, and bound to make you think, you'll love this one.
It's basically a follow-up to David Hackett Fisher's Albion's Seed. That book, which came out in 1989, posited 4 basic cultures that settled the US, and which continued to have a huge influence up to this day.
To those cultures (Puritan New England, Quaker Pennsylvania, Cavalier Tidewater, and Scots-Irish Appalachia), Woodard has added a few more (New Netherlands and the Deep South, for example), and extended coverage of them up to the current day. He does an excellent job showing how different the nations were at the time of the Revolution, and why uniting the country was as difficult as it was. He also shows how the different cultures extended across the landscape (for example, a Yankee influence in the Western Reserve of Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota as well as a similar influence on the "Left Coast"). He does a good job showing how immigration fits in as well (basically, the original cultures were so strong that immigrants went where they fit in). Finally, he shows how the current impasse between red and blue states can all be tied back to a basic cultural division between Yankeedom and the Deep South. It really does help explain "what's the matter with Kansas?"
on August 10, 2012
Given that North Americans by and large have been quite a migratory lot, is it possible that the author could label what we would normally and vaguely identify as "regional differences" as "nations" with powerful and distinct identities? Colin Woodard, historian and journalist would have us believe that even today the North American continent embraces eleven of these, which he describes as "rival regional cultures" that beg serious attention, if we are to understand and deal with North American politics, economics, and above all social values. Woodard would have us believe that "one nation indivisible" is a myth created and sustained to cover our incompatibilities and deter our further fragmentation.
Though I did not identify it as such at the time, my migration from Ohio to be educated in a Maryland highschool and later to take up a Fellowship to earn my doctorate in California in the mid-1970s involved substantial amounts of what we describe today as culture shock. Caught in the midst of what Woodard in retrospect calls "culture wars" I was mostly just humored by the bumper stickers worn on cars from the Pacific Northwest that read, "Don't Californicate Oregon," and "Water in Oregon is pasteurized: it flows through pasture after pasture,"--the aim was to deter the surge of unbridled urban expansion and development into pristine, "wide-open spaces."
Perhaps the key distinction here is that, according to the author, nations are what have culture; states try to create them. He reminds us that the dynamic of artificial boundaries, "bringing states into existence" are a result of colonization or political gerrymandering, and not necessarily coherent or coterminous with the cultures of the people enclosed by them. While most of us are familiar with this concept from analyses of the discord in sub-Saharan Africa, where European colonial powers carved up and negotiated political boundaries with little or no sense of the peoples, both sedentary and migratory living across them, we have not thought much about how the concept may apply elsewhere. Some are beginning to recognize in the bloodshed of revolution and in the turmoil of the Arab Spring, that this is the case as well in what we call the "Middle East." Woodard would extend this as well to the colonization of the North American continent with the eventual establishment of the United "States," where the cultural blocs he describes as "nations" thrive across boundaries, despite how politically and geographically fixed they appear on maps.
For the reader's reference I list here Woodard's eleven "American Nations," (along with his mapping of them), each with a couple of identifying cultural descriptions. I leave it to the reader of the book to enter into the complexity of the cultures, their development and their geographical reach, along with their alliances and their enmities that are detailed in the book itself:
1. First Nation: indigenous peoples, today reclaiming sovereignty and influence.
2. New France: liberal, earthy, egalitarian, including a nation in waiting (Quebec).
3. Yankeedom: once religious, now secular Puritan moralism, in pursuit of the greater good. Communitarian but authoritarian, feudal, and declining, but by migration extending its cultural influence over the northern Midwest and the Left Coast.
4. New Netherland: A global commercial trading society, tolerant, pragmatic and creative. Dutch in many ways, despite declining numbers of those of actual Dutch origin.
5. Tidewater: historically influential aristocratic gentry, declining influence due to its geographical isolation to the mid-Atlantic coast and the size and strength of its neighbors' cultures.
6. Deep South: British colonial origins in Caribbean slave plantations, polarized on racial lines, frustrated nation state, bellicose, currently struggling to maintain recently acquired political ascendency.
7. Greater Appalachia: Scots-Irish roots, warrior ethic, seeking above all individual liberty, culturally insouciant, often impoverished, rural.
8. The Midlands: Germanic, government skeptical, trying to mind its own business, passive and sometimes pacifist, includes the core of English-speaking Canada, as well as a swath across the center of what we commonly call "the Midwest."
9. El Norte: Hispanic, divided by a militarized border, growing, a potential reconquista.
10. The Far West: developed, colonized, and exploited by the seaboard nations, big business and federal controls.
11. The Left Coast: Related to Yankeedom in values, at war with a libertarian-corporate agenda of the Far West and the values of the Deep South.
The critical question which the book raises and which the interculturalist must ask, is: Does the cultural discourse, values and behaviors of these "nations" actually persist and acculturate the constant flow of newcomers from the other "nations" as well as from abroad, given the mobility of Americans and the constant stream of immigration? If so, how, and to what degree? What are the dynamics of hybridity? What is stable within them and what has shifted over time? How is the culture of each shaped and perpetuated? The author cites ample evidence in mental and behavior patterns that persist and, despite the ingrafting of substantial immigration and mobility, still bear fruit from their founders' cultural roots. We are reminded that these cultures are alive and well to the degree that they consistently and currently steer the efforts of politicians to get elected on both the local and national tickets and are inevitable predictors of legislative positioning on many national issues. They can also be traced linguistically by the present day distribution of accents and speech patterns.
Part One of American Nations is called "Origins" and addresses the period from 1590 to 1769. These opening chapters are dedicated to describing the detailed history of the founding of the first eight of these nations. It is briefly interrupted by a chapter describing "The Colonies First Revolt," which took place against the policies of King James in the 1680's, roughly a century before the wars for independence from Britain and from each other, commonly lumped together as the "Revolutionary War" were set in motion.
Part Two tells the story of "Unlikely Allies, 1770 to 1815." By the beginning of this period, each of the eight eastern nations had formed substantial cultural roots, derived from class, ethnicity, common experience and regional interests. The period is marked, according to Woodard not by one, but six "revolutionary wars," between the nations as well as against their British overlords, and the attempts to found workable alliances despite stark culturally rooted divisions in both loyalist and independence minded camps. The shaky alliance, while it laid the basis for confederation and then union, was threatened repeatedly by secession from the very beginning and in fact consolidated the national identities in the not so "United" States. Independence did not necessarily equate with coherent democracy, sometimes explicitly rejected by the cultural discourse of certain nations and, where not, often eliminated on a practical level by wealth, class and disenfranchisement. The existence of democracy is still being fought over along these traditional lines.
Part Three is entitled, "Wars for the West," and traces the period 1816 to 1877. The first four chapters document the westward spread of Yankeedom, Midlanders, Greater Appalachia and the Deep South and the conflicts that occurred in the movements and cultural rub of the westward migrants with each other which often meant conflict not only of manners but verbally and physically bellicose behavior. This also, inevitably, meant the cultural and military conquest as well as genocide perpetrated on the native peoples whose lands were being appropriated.
Part Four, "Culture Wars: 1878 to 2010," begins with a history of the founding of the Far West, a more detailed description of the wars for the West that concluded the previous part. The story begins with mineral booms ends with industrial exploitation of the terrain and its inhabitants, at first the railroads in cahoots with the federal government, offering worthless farmland to settlers, then the mining conglomerates and other big business. The resultant deep resentment of the federal government is now exploited by both the cartels and the politics of the Deep South.
A chapter on "Immigration and Identity" follows, in which the author starts to answer many of the questions the reader may have about if and how these cultural "nations" sustain their original values and acculturate newcomers to them. In the author's own words, "Immigrants didn't alter `American culture,' they altered America's respective regional cultures", actually accentuating the differences among them. Accustomed as we are to looking at US diversity through the lens of hyphenated American groups in terms of their origins, we are not used to looking at their settlement patterns according to region and density in the influences that had on their acculturation in the various American "nations" where they settled. Immigrants did not become "Americans," because, according to the author, "It is fruitless to search for the characteristics of an "American" identity because each nation has its own notion of what being American should mean.
Religion is the topic of the next chapter, "God and Missions," helps to explain the great divide found in today's polarized religious climate, providing historical perspective on the secularization of Puritan communitarian ideals and the fundamentalist orientation of the Dixie bloc, exploding in the culture wars of the 1960's and persisting to this day Its influence on both the domestic and international policies as well as the search for individual identity.
The final two chapters of the book provide copious examples of how the nations and their alliances continue to influence contemporary politics, foreign policy, and the endless propensity to go to war. The epilogue discusses possibilities for the future or non-future of the union. This wrap-up is persuasive about how the influence of the archetypal cultures that shaped the earliest nations of America continues within and beyond the borders of the contemporary United States.
Frankly, I could not lay the book down, not only because I'm somewhat of a history buff, a discipline of which I find all too rarely utilized in intercultural work, but because it literally made me reflect on who I am, adding a dimension unfamiliar to the sense of diversity that I have lived out to this point. History can both explain how we got to where we are and substantiate who we are. US Americans often seem to be engaged in a search for self-esteem in order to build an identity frustrated by the very individualistic denial of the substance of diverse identities. In other words, "identity crisis" describes a vicious cultural circle. We wonder how neighbors and even family members can become so different from each other, trying to avoid stereotypes while experiencing rock solid differing perspectives, beliefs and values.
American Nations provides a perspective that led me to hear me repeatedly saying to myself, "Yes, of course! That's it. That's why." It helped me understand how and when I connected to and disconnected from others in the US context. We live and work in a time when cultural diversity has been promoted to the point where its significance is called into question on both practical and moral grounds, and in particular where the influence of culture is pooh-poohed despite clearly identifiable strains of cultural discourse in the pooh-poohers. There are many ways of picturing US demographics, e.g., urban and rural, red and blue States, diversity of ethnic origins, etc. Woodard's perspective helps us bring a lot of these together and helps us make better sense of them.
on February 21, 2012
I greatly enjoyed Woodard's "American Nations." I've been recommending it even since before reading it, and now that I've finished it, will continue to do so. However, I think it's important to note that Woodard's initial observations are perhaps better than his final conclusions. The history he has compiled is fascinating, and the regional identities are instantly recognizable to any American. However, once he gets into the modern era, his personal bias towards his own nation becomes increasingly transparent.
To paraphrase/satirize the tone in the final third, to this reader he came across as saying, "The worst things about Yankeedom are that they're too pushy about wanting paradise on earth for peoples of all creeds and colors. The worst things about the Deep South are that they hate non-whites and want to keep people stupid and poor and miserable."
This book, although thoughtful, well-written, and insightful, would have benefited from a Southern co-author who could provide a balancing perspective from outside Woodard's native Yankee viewpoint. Surely all nations have qualities that are equally admirable, as well as failings that are equally distressing. Nonetheless, it remains a fascinating read and one that I will continue to go back to and recommend, albeit with qualifications.
(Two more small nitpicks -- along with other reviewers, I was surprised at how little credit he gave Garreau. Also, I was surprised that there was no discussion of the national character of African Americans in the Deep South. It seems like a missed opportunity to observe and report on a parallel society, and strange that he should focus only on the white minority as the sole definers of that nation.)
on April 21, 2015
I'm posting an unfavorable review, which I don't like to do, and I'm violating my own rule against reviewing a book I haven't managed to finish, But someone has to. The guts of this book is Garreau's NINE NATIONS OF NORTH AMERICA, which I highly recommend, which discusses the various regions of North America and their distinctive traits. This is combined with Fisher's ALBION'S SEED, which I also highly recommend, discussing the English origins of these cultures, and Fisher's CHAMPLAIN'S DREAM (Quebec) which I haven't read. Woodard's value ought to be integrating these. But there are problems. He's massively politically biased in favor of the current American left, and he lets it show. He's also sloppy. His regional borders in the old Northwest Territory are enough to make me wonder whether he's ever actually been to, say, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois or Michigan. (Garreau, for contrast, is spot on where I can check him on the ground.) The saving grace of such a work ought to be the detail. But in the areas where I know the history well enough--Methodism, say, or the Mexican War--the facts presented are debatable when they aren't demonstrably wrong. And if I know he's not reliable where I can check him, what use is he where I don't know?
It's a good subject, and a good idea. But for now, I'd say read Garreau and Fisher and wait for someone who knows the territories he's talking about, and is or hires a meticulous fact-checker for his history. Here's two hints: first, you should not be able to skim a factual book, and immediately know which party and which candidate the author supports. Second, if the author fails the first test--check an event with multiple sides to it, and see how many he presents. If it's only his own party orthodoxy, why bother with the book? Life is too short for reading party tracts.
on October 12, 2011
You think the great fissures in American society are something new? Hardly. Far from being "one nation indivisible," America, from the very start, has been a collection of fragments, always at tension, and only rarely cohesive. In this comprehensive, compelling, and cogent work, Colin Woodard explains the origins of what divides us. Highly recommended for anyone interested in American history, sociology, politics - really, if you've the slightest interest in how we got to where we are today, read this book.
on July 13, 2012
This book covers the historical settlement of North America quite well. Many questions I had about the early colonial period were answered. Regional divisions are quite evident to folks with a set of eyes and any sense in their brain, yet US history books seem to claim a united 13 colonies devolved into two halves - a north and a south (simply over slavery), expanded into the wild west in the 1800s, and somehow became further divided into schisms in modern times. The history presented in the book is easy to read and ties everything together.
In summary this is what the book says: New Englanders and later Great Lake people were Anglo Saxon Protestant utopians, mostly of the Puritan persuasion, who though meddling in everyone else's affairs, mean well and have always valued education as a sign of status. New Netherland is basically greater New York City, which due to its size, and profit-first mindset, gave it a unique immigrant identity, largely of Dutch-reform Calvinists at first, and just about every group imaginable thereafter. Their money-first mentality also fueled the American end of the slave trade, as many were shipped to NYC and even stayed there on the many farms in the area. Midlanders are a heterogeneous blend of people Quakers liked - the "default" American. Appalachians were a rare group that clashed with tolerant Quakers of Philadelphia, and fled to the hills before spreading from coast to coast as rugged pioneer people. Tidewater cavaliers were the first American aristocracy, based in disinherited Normans scions from the old country, and produced the great founders like Washington and Jefferson. The book says were slave owners but genuinely better people (in the author's mind perhaps) than their Deep Southern Norman cousins that at least valued education in their slave-based agrarian lifestyle. Deep Southerners are described as the bane of America pretty much. Hardcore slave owners that defended their "rights" to treat people as owned livestock, and somehow managed to fend off numerous rebellions in spite of being a minority in the region they ruled over. They liked to dance in balls and sit on their rockers drinking tea while watching their "property" sweat it out in the field, and carried the same mentality to their Bible Belt conservative politics of today.
Other areas are described, though not really part of the original British colonies. New France is really the first serious colonization project of Northwest Europeans in North America after Columbus. It is said to be pretty much the same as today's Quebec, yet somehow Acadians found their way down to Louisiana in some unusual satellite colony that largely absorbed into the Deep South after the Louisiana Purchase. The Left Coast was settled by Puritan Yankees via boat, with only San Francisco area keeping some names from earlier Spanish "Indian conversion" missions and a few architectural motifs. They didn't have much time before some Appalachian ruffians of other sorts came over during the Gold Rush. The Wild West was really land no individual farmer could tame, and needed great colonization efforts by mining and railroad corporations. I guess the Mormons were a colonization corporation too. El Norte was the first European settlement of North America after Columbus. They settled the Gulf and the rugged deserts along the Rio Grande and up to Pueblo, Colorado. They were largely isolated from the core of Aztec-Spaniard Mexico City, and were a rugged rural people who brought us the cowboy culture (BTW Young Guns is a decent movie depicting how "frontier hillbilly" Appalachian and El Norte culture merged in New Mexico).
The area covered is pretty extensive, but some areas are forgotten or merged with areas they have little in common with. One notable example - that he does mention to his defense - is the Mormon settlement of Utah.
Mormons were as New Englander as they come, but allegations of sorcery and witchcraft (remember Salem?) led them to flee to the Cleveland area of Ohio. Persecution there was more based in financial failings of Joseph Smith's bank in a Jacksonian time dominated by Appalachian Borderlanders. (Jackson himself had a history with banks - namely fighting off big European ones.) Anyway next stop was the area bordering Indian Territory in present-day Independence, Missouri. Actually this area was settled simultaneously with Kirtland, Ohio, but Joseph Smith did not have the main group there. Joseph Smith marched "Zion's Camp" over there when the Appalachian-based frontiersmen there took offense to their meddling "Yankee" and utopian ways. (Mormons claimed it was the site of New Jerusalem, a city for the new Millennium, which obviously chaffed against the other settlers). After a jail stay in "Liberty" of all cities, Smith took his fledgling faith to Illinois to establish a city then on par with Chicago. Within half a decade it was over 12K and flourishing. The city was in the buffer zone between Yankeedom and Appalachia, called Midlander in the book. Again trouble arose - this time with the issue of church vs. state and freedom of the press. When Joseph Smith had an anti-Mormon press in town torn down as a "nuisance", this led to more mobs of haters and finally Smith's execution in jail from a face-painted mob. While Yankee in origin, Smith and his associates had veered quite a bit from the increasingly secular and civil liberty-loving mindset of the Northern states.
While all this was going on in America, converts were being drawn in from around the country. Mormonism was a heavily-proselyting faith that swole in numbers in the first few decades from the original six members in New York. One of my ancestors came to Nauvoo from the East Tennessee Smokey Mountains of all places. (another ancestor of mine being Brigham Young himself). England was the first European country to be heavily tracted, with the first ward in Europe in Preston. Many Englanders and British sailed to "Zion" in the 1830s and 40s before the fall of Nauvoo, so the English ancestry of many Utahns cited in the book was not colonial or New Englander - it was an entirely new batch of Victorian "Brits" (whom Charles Dickens once positively noted at the port before as they were leaving for America.) These people, along with converted people across the country, joined the wagon trains westward for one of the first massive migrations across America in 1847. While they stopped near present-day Omaha along the way, the final destination was a valley that represents a 180-degree rotation of the ancient Holy Land, with a fresh-water "Sea of Galilee" (Utah Lake) pouring upwards into a salty "dead sea" (Great Salt Lake). I think Brigham Young recognized these features (the river was even named Jordan), along with the desert climate of the valley and said "This is the right place". The rest is Utah history as we know it, and that of those "strange polygamous Mormons".
But it doesn't stop at Utah. The Mormon Battalion was an advance scouting group that helped map out the Southwest during the Mexican War. They also helped found San Diego and some members were in California during the first gold discovery. They have a substantial influence in California's, Idaho's, Nevada's, and Arizona's history. Deseret was originally proposed to be a megastate encompassing all of the Mormon colonies - including San Bernaardino, CA, Las Vegas, Mesa, AZ, western Idaho, and the Wasatch Front. This demand and polygamy are two main reasons why it took so long for them to obtain statehood (over 40 years).
In spite of the Utah War, rejected state demands, church/state issues, and the polygamy imprisonments, they still cooperated with the federal government and corporations in creating the great railroads that spanned the country, and mining the Rocky Mountains. In this way they did fit into the Far West. They also surprisingly have influence in outlaw legend with Butch Cassidy, and the high stakes world of modern corporate Vegas with Howard Hughes' "Mormon Mafia". Mormon culture has always been unique from Yankeedom, the left coast and the old west, even though it has pieces in common with all these. I think the biggest points of conflict have been church and state, living revelation, polygamy (which no other American nation liked) and what many see as a "forbidden" mixture of science and theology/religion. Just look at the recent snubbings by the Left Coast Pac-12 conference of the Mormon BYU. They would rather take BYU's secularized older sister, the University of Deseret...I mean Utah instead (the school that the previous two Mormon prophets attended). Both however were founded by Brigham Young for basically the same reason - educate "the Saints" while maintaining the Latter Day Saint faith.
So yeah they have Yankee focus on education and social betterment, an almost Appalachian pioneer mindset of do it yourself (minus the moonshine), and a corporate Far West identity. But the restoration of ancient cultures, namely the Anglo Saxon tribe hierarchy coupled with Biblical to ancient Israel's top-down government that Moses set up (Stakes and wards), a restoration of ancient temple worship (which Templars tried but couldn't get all the pieces together), and the fact that Salt Lake City and Provo are Meccas of Mormon converts worldwide justifies a unique cultural grouping. Even non-Mormons in heavily Mormon states like Nevada, Arizona and Idaho inherit some of the Mormon influences like the wide street grid, and Mormons are senators, governors and congresspeople in those states. There are anti-Mormons in these states, but same goes for the epicenter of Salt Lake City, which is only like 40% Mormon. It could be argued anti-Mormonism and Jack-Mormonism is a culture in and of itself, and even part of the greater Mormon culture (yin and yang). It has followed the culture wherever it went, yet somehow manages to coexist. Some like the friendly and safe Mormon atmosphere while paradoxically complaining about their strict moral laws and government influence. That's enough about the Mormon culture. (While not a Mormon historian, I know a bit about its history just growing up in the faith.) Now on to other parts of the book.
The author also leaves out the substantial French influence in the settlement of Mississippi River and Great Lake cities like St. Louis, Detroit, and Chicago. Why are there still places and universities in those cities named after French people like Marquette, Champaign, LaSalle or DePaul? This would have been a good tie-in between the contrasting Cajun culture and the Quebecois culture. The Cajun settlement was not really as isolated as the book claims. The French followed a settlement path down the St. Lawrence into the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi. Also Mobile and Biloxi are equally French in their origins as cities as New Orleans and Baton Rouge are. The reality is that the American Revolution inspired the French Revolution, which weakened a vast colonization of the American interior. Before that there was heavy colonization. It was not neglected territory as much as it was territory that became an excessive expense with war costs and management changes. This was purchased in the "Louisiana Purchase". With the inclusion of "El Norte" as a significant Catholic/Romance culture in North America, in spite of the fact that states like Arizona, Southern California and New Mexico are heavily anglicized today, why leave out the interior culture influence of the fur traders and settlers of the Louisiana Purchase portion of the United States?
The deep south characterization is, as other reviewers said, biased. I liked the first two thirds, up to the turn of the 20th century, but the last third seems to follow the liberal/Yankee line of "all southerners are backwards people clinging on to superstitions and social casting of feudal times, ruled by 'massas' in white hats and bow-ties". But somehow the fact that the South has been a center for technological development since New Deal and World War 2 gets omitted. Those Tennessee "hillbillies" have Oak Ridge, the "cotton pickers" in Northern Alabama have Redstone Arsenal, Cummings Research Park and Marshall Space Flight Center, the "crackers" on the Central Florida coast have Cape Canaveral, the "cowboys" of Houston have NASA command center, the "tarheels" in North Carolina have Research Triangle Park, and greater Atlanta is home to many high tech industries. The "uneducated" south is also responsible for some of the first and highest-caliber public universities in the country - Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Georgia Tech, as well as group of prestigious "southern ivy" or "magnolia" group including private schools like Rice, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Southern Methodist, Tulane, Duke, Miami and Emory.
on June 6, 2012
So first, I'm gonna start out by saying that I'm not a scholar by any means. I'm an interested person who enjoys reading about history.
Woodard presents an interesting theory that I feel in my gut has merit. As someone who's lived in the Midlands, New Netherland, Greater Appalachia, and the Left Coast, and has friends from all over the country, I found myself nodding along with a lot of the character archetypes he associates with the various North American nations. I particularly enjoyed the chapters where he delves into early American history and shows how disparate the original colonies and nations really were.
However, even as a non-scholar, I could tell that he was cherrypicking a lot. He never quite nails down the boundaries for these nations, even though he was confident enough to include a number of maps. He uses the term "Borderlander" in so many different contexts, it's hard to tell which one he's referring to at any given time. Also -- and this has been pointed out by several reviewers -- his attempts to map a "Midlands" region is kind of laughable, and envelops some regions that don't really have a whole lot in common. Still, it's a useful designation if you start thinking of "Midlands" as "American Default", sort of the cultural equivalent of "Newscaster English". Here, I think he's referring to a real thing, but I don't think it's as rooted in geography as many of the other American nations.
Finally, we get to the concluding chapters of the book, which I find problematic, although perhaps not for the same reasons as other reviewers. I mean, look, I'm a liberal Democrat, probably more liberal than most people reading this review. It would be really easy for me to revert to generalizations about how conservative white Southerners are ruining this country with their corporate kowtowing and religion-based culture wars. And, at times, I am truly alarmed by how closely the rhetoric of prominent conservatives flirts with actual fascism. But the thing is, I'm mature enough to see that the real problem is bigger than our bumper sticker arguments and culture wars.
The problem is that America has become a country that cannot solve its own problems.
And you can see that in the events of the day. Look at the debt ceiling argument from last year; as a consequence of our failure to find a solution to our budget dilemmas, the US suffered a decline in our credit rating. That's really bad! Nobody -- not Democrats, not Republicans -- wanted that to happen. But because we've lost the ability to tackle hard problems, that's exactly what happened.
Look at the war in Iraq. Unlike some of my fellow leftists, I'm willing to concede that many Americans supported the war in good faith, thinking that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. But he didn't, and we wasted untold amounts of money and countless human lives on an unnecessary war. Why did this happen?
Look at the financial crisis. Something NOBODY wanted to happen. So why did it happen? Why were there no safeguards to stop it from happening? Look at health care. Regardless of whether or not you support President Obama's healthcare reforms, there's no denying that we pay more money and get fewer benefits from our system then people in every other industrialized country. Why? We live with the constant spectre of global warming, groundwater depletion, and fossil fuel dependency, but we haven't done anything meaningful to solve these problems. Why? Income inequality is at an all-time high; and whether or not you believe the CEOs deserve to be as rich as they are, I think we can all agree that the have-nots in America don't deserve to have as little opportunity as they do. So why don't they have more of a chance? We're the richest, most powerful country in the world, but our K-12 schools aren't graduating enough scientists and engineers to make us competitive in the world economy. Why?
These are problems that exist regardless of your stand on abortion, gay marriage, prayer in school, religion, or any other hot-button issue. Why have we lost our ability to solve hard problems? We have this great Constitution, we have these great legislative bodies, we've got this strong, robust Democracy; these are the venues where issues of the day are meant to be deliberated, and our brightest, most wise leaders should be putting their heads together and finding solutions. But this is not happening. Why?
These are the kinds of questions I sought to answer in reading this book. And the thing is, Woodard comes SO CLOSE!!! but misses the point entirely. We've lost our ability to solve problems because we've gotten so wrapped up in our own individual American Nations, we've lost the will to learn from each other and pool our complementary strengths. I was hoping the concluding chapters would address this, and give us some kind of hopeful way forward. Instead, I got what sounded like a transcript from some of my late-night bull sessions with my friends.
Also, there's really nothing in the premise or title of this book that would hint at its being partially a liberal polemic; I could easily see a conservative Southerner being drawn to this book for its initial premise, only to turn away disgusted at having their culture baldly insulted.
So, in summation : theory good, evidence not perfect but good enough, conclusion weak and unsatisfying. I'm glad I read the book because it's made for some great cocktail party conversation, but I can't really take it too seriously.
on May 31, 2012
In this book, Colin Woodard sets for himself an ambitious goal . He is determined to show how the presumably cohesive American (and Canadian to some extent) culture is in fact an uneasy coexistence of 11 distinct cultures belonging to just as many nations whose characteristics and even geographical boundaries have been largely preserved until this very day. Moreover, he asserts that the differences and the tensions among those nations are today as sharp as ever and, that properly analyzed, they can explain the deep fissures that continue to divide the American society and American politics.
To me, the great thing about this book is the scholarly skill with which Colin Woodard punches great holes into, and subsequently demolishes some of the festive and shallowly patriotic narratives that are trotted out every 4th of July and on other such occasions. It turns out that the Mayflower passengers or the Jamestown colonists did not build the first European settlements on the territory of the United States. By the time they arrived, Spanish settlements dotted New Mexico, Colorado and other places. We learn that many colonies did not necessarily fight for freedom and the rights of man. All the southern states were in fact afraid that the new British laws will cause their massive slave populations to revolt. Their "revolutionary" fight was for preserving one of the cruelest and barbaric form of society known in the history of man. Colin Woodward also reveals to us how the conflicts among those nations were sometimes far more serious than their disagreements with the British and, how some colonies did not even want to revolt. For example, New Netherland (the area around New York City) was a staunch loyalist bastion whose population was deeply disappointed when, at the end of the fighting, they were abandoned by the British in the arms of the new republic. The myth of the Far-West genesis, as an achievement of unrepentant individualists who loved freedom and hated government is another target for Woodard's thorough research. In fact he argues that large swaths of the Far West (like today's Arizona, Nevada, etc.) would not even be inhabitable without the huge investments in infrastructure, transportation and overall "welfare" made over the years by the US government.
The author is trying hard to prove that the existence of the 11 cultures can explain almost everything about America. Although I am not sure that he completely succeeds, his book has great value for anybody interested in the real history of the United States. The high level of scholarship combined with an easy to follow writing style make "American Nations" a compelling reading experience.