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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.
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Top Customer Reviews
When it comes to the "Far West," the author seemed to have stopped doing any serious historical research or analysis, and just started indulging clichés. His basic story is that this vast area of the U.S. is made up of rubes hoodwinked with talk of individualism by exploitative corporate interests. The exploration of the West was generally very poor and felt rushed.
Finally, when the author tried to bring his historical research to bear on recent and current events, the book descended into a progressive diatribe worthy of a filler article in Mother Jones. It's a real shame that the last few chapters of the book were not edited out. These chapters greatly damaged the author's credibility as an authoritative guide to the diverse cultures in America. Nevertheless, the first 2/3 of the book is definitely worth reading. It is very educational and informative. I hope that he revises the book and puts it out either in a form that omits talk of the West and recent decades, or with a more measured treatment of these areas. If he does that, it will be a 5-star book.
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.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
After reading “American Nations” on the recommendation of a friend, I was surprised to see the conformity of excellent ratings and reviews on Amazon, as many an...Read more