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American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America Paperback – September 25, 2012
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“Fascinating . . . Engrossing . . . a smart read that feels particularly timely now, when so many would claim a mythically unified ‘founding Fathers’ as their political ancestors.”
—The Boston Globe
“[I]n offering us a way to better understand the forces at play in the rumpus room of current American politics, Colin Woodard has scored a true triumph.”
—The Daily Beast
“[C]ompelling and informative.”
—The Washington Post
“Mr. Woodard’s approach is breezier than [David Hackett] Fischer’s and more historical than [Joel] Garreau’s, but he has earned a place on the shelf between them."
—The Wall Street Journal
“[American Nations] sets itself apart by delving deep into history to trace our current divides to ethno-cultural differences that emerged during the country’s earliest settlement.”
—The New Republic, Editors’ Picks: Best Books of 2011
—News and Observer
“In American Nations, [Colin Woodard] persuasively reshapes our understanding of how the American political entity came to be. . . . [A] fascinating new take on history.”
—The Christian Science Monitor
“American Nations by journalist-historian Colin Woodard is a superb book. Woodard makes a compelling argument that the United Sates was founded by contradictory regional convictions that continue to influence current attitudes and policy on a national level. . . . American Nations smashes the idea of political borders. . . . There is much to grapple with in this well-written book.”
—The Portland Press Herald
“[F]or people interested in American history and sociology, American Nations demands reading. . . . American Nations is important reading.”
—St. Louis Dispatch
“[I]f you want to better understand U.S. politics, history, and culture American Nations is to be required reading. . . . By revealing this continent of rivals, American Nations will revolutionize the way Americans think about their past, their country, and themselves and is sure to spark controversy.”
—The Herald Gazette
“Woodard persuasively argues that since the founding of the United States, eleven distinct geographical ‘nations’ have formed within the Union, each with its own identity and set of values.”
—Military History Quarterly
“Colin Woodard offers up an illuminating history of North America that explodes the red state-blue state myth. . . . Woodard’s American Nations is a revolutionary and revelatory take on America’s myriad identities, and how the conflicts between them have shaped our country’s past and mold its future.”
“One of the most original books I read in the last year. . . . During my five years as an Ambassador in the United States, I spent a lot of time studying the voting patterns of different states and reading American history, and I have to say I find Woodard’s thesis to be fully borne out by my own observations.”
—John Bruton, former Prime Minister of Ireland
“Woodard offers a fascinating way to parse American (writ large) politics and history in this excellent book.”
—Kirkus (starred review)
“[W]ell-researched analysis with appeal to both casual and scholarly readers.”
About the Author
Colin Woodard is a Maine native and the author of Ocean’s End: Travels Through Endangered Seas. He is a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Top customer reviews
This is not the only book that has outlined the various cultures of North America, but I wonder if it might not be the best-told and easiest to read. It certainly opened my eyes. There are now times that I can listen to a politician speak and guess accurately from which part of the country he came. These cultures are THAT distinct!
national or international cultures actually becoming our president.
It is must reading. And I disagree with those who thought that the last sections of the book were weak. For me, they were the strongest.
He's strongest on the original eight "nations" that he identifies, partly because their form was so raw and undiluted. The colonies didn't have much time to mix it up before the American Revolution, what with travel difficult and the post slow. What each of the eight nations did was re-establish the social structure, economy, and moral values of their source regions. I can only offer brief summaries. And it helps if, instead of thinking "stereotypes" the reader thinks "generalizations."
(1) "El Norte" was the first, the result of explorations by Spain and Mexico. The norteños have far more in common with the USA than with Mexico City and have been generally fatalistic until recently. It covers areas north of the border and up into California to about Point Conception. He doesn't get into it much.
(2) "New France" includes most of eastern Canada and is described as accommodating itself to Native American culture and having a strong streak of independence. It embraces New Orleans but Woodard doesn't deal with it, though it was French enough for Degas to visit relatives there in the late 19th century. But the city is now turning into just another large Baptist community with the French Quarter as a kind of theme park.
(3) "Tidewater" is mostly in Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia, down to about the border of North Carolina. The original settlers intended to import an old-fashioned, aristocratic English gentry life style, with wealthy farmers at the top and a paternalistic attitude towards their servants and workers, almost feudal.
(4) "Yankeedom" provides the model most of us imagine when we think of the founding of America. The Puritans were escaping religious persecution. Distasteful of what they saw as the ornate milieu of Catholicism and the Anglican Church, they were motivated by religion to strive for simplicity, solidarity, and democracy and were intolerant of those who didn't fit it. (They hanged not just "witches" but some Quakers who volunteered to be hanged.) The foundation of democracy was the Town Hall Meeting. They were confident that they were meant for salvation through a betterment of the real world. Money was less important than good works, including establishing educational institutions to make sure citizens learned the proper morals. (He doesn't mention it, but Oliver Wendel Holmes' will left his family comfortable but most of his fortune went to Harvard.)
(5) "New Netherland", limited to an area around New York City. The settlers came from Holland which, at the time, was one of the most powerful and richest commercial empires in the world. They were tolerant of anyone who was able to make his way to the top, even if it involved some corruption. Democracy was a secondary concern but anybody was welcome.
(6) "The Deep South" was founded by people from the slave staging areas of the Caribbean, such as Barbados, where blacks and trash were treated cruelly. Blacks were literally deemed less human than whites. The system was imported into the Southern states and east Texas, with some resistance from states like Georgia. The climate was perfect for growing cotton which was labor intensive and allowed the system to flourish.
(7) "The Midlands" were settled by Quakers around Philadelphia and extended westward. Quakers believed that people were guided by an inner spiritual light so there was no need of preachers or priests. They were pacifists and mostly avoided publicity or positions of power. The arrogance of Yankeedom has given us about a dozen presidents, including four from Massachusetts. Pennsylvania has given us only one -- James Buchanan. Reticent, rejecting positions of power, Midlanders have been often overruled by others.
(8) "Greater Appalachia" was settled later than most of the other nations. The settlers were largely refugees from the tumultuous borderlands between England, on the one hand, and the Scottish and Irish on the other. (Think William Wallace in "Braveheart.") They'd been at war for centuries and were organized into clans. Ditto in the New World. The Hatfield and McCoys. They are used to armed conflict and are patriotic but fiercely independent. The Deep South had a hell of a time dealing with them during the Civil War. They didn't want to be ruled by the Union, but they didn't want to be ruled by the Confederacy either.
The three other nations are skimmed over. "First Nation" consists mostly of northern Indians and Eskimos, now know as Inuit. They're just beginning to feel their oats. The "Far West" includes the states of the great plains, Rocky Mountains, and the Great Basin desert, and has traditionally been ruled by one or another big business, sometimes literally, as Anaconda Copper paid for seats in the state legislature of Montana. "Left Coast" is a thin strip running from the coast of middle California up along the seafaring coast of Canada, and presumably peters out somewhere short of Alaska.
I'm trying to keep this review as brief as is consistent with understanding the general logic of the book, so I'm going to skip many of its felicities, such as his distinction between individual Protestantism (salvation of the individual through being re-born, as in the South) and community Protestantism (salvation through community effort, a Yankee trait).
It has two main weaknesses. One is that the maps seem to suggest whole blocks of Americans live in one or another of the "nations" that Woodard's book maps out in strongly drawn lines And his text doesn't do much to soften that mistaken impression. It seems more useful to me to think of the various nations as more like regional accents and dialects in speech, with a great deal of overlap and many outliers. It also strikes me that, like regional accents, the differences between the nations, while still immensely strong, are undergoing changes that suggest they are weakening. Some regional dialects are on an extinction curve. Not just the high-tiders of North Carolina or the gullah-speaking population of Georgia's offshore islands, but in previously distinctive areas, including New York City and Boston. (There are sociolinguistic studies that have shown this but I won't get into it.) The current polarization of political attitudes shouldn't blind us to the fact that the changes are real and fundamental. Some of today's political movements sound a little like a last gasp.
The second weakness, or so it seems to me, is that Woodard has gerrymandered the boundaries of his nations here and there in order to explain away some facts that look like they contradict his thesis. I did a study of voting patterns in California in the 1982 elections. I don't know how belonging to fatalistic El Norte could account for ultra-conservative Orange County in Southern California, or his often confused description of the founding of Left Coast could give us the anything-goes San Francisco Bay Area.
I don't know if it should be considered a weakness or a strength but it becomes clear by the time you finish the book that he approves of Yankeedom and its values and disparages the Deep South for what it was. He never says it in so many words, but it's understandable that some of us should write angry reviews about a work that hides its value judgments under a veil of objective description and historical analysis. I happen to agree with some of his prejudices but I can be excused because, as a New Netherlander, I have an excess of tolerance and I am monumentally rich.