October 13, 2011


American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. By Colin Woodard. Viking. $30.

     Here is an intriguing foray into American history – not United States history, but history that includes the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Journalist/historian Colin Woodard redraws the map of North America to show 11 “rival regional cultures” whose names range from the familiar (Far West, Deep South) to the unexpected (New France, which includes Quebec and the New Orleans region; El Norte, which is in the Southwest and includes part of Mexico). Woodard argues that the various cultures, extending over state and national boundaries, are the modern remnants of European founders who came to the New World with tremendously different ideas about freedom, government, religion and politics. It is the persistence of these founding principles, says Woodard – not something as simplistic as the now-commonplace division of the map into “red” and “blue” states, and indeed not a division into states at all – that explains the intransigence of people who live in one cultural area as regards the ideas and ideals of those who live in another.

     This is all very interesting, and some of the byways of history that Woodard explores are genuinely fascinating – such as the first American rebellion, which took place in the 1680s in reaction to the harshness of King James II. Other elements of the book are less attractive. Woodard is a trifle too apologetic for the Eurocentrism without which he would have no argument at all: “History has tended to portray the native peoples of the Americas as mere extras or scenery in a Western drama dominated by actors of European and African descent. Because this book is primarily concerned with the ethnocultural nations that have come to dominate North America, it will reluctantly adopt that paradigm.” Indeed, bending over backwards to show his sensitivity and political correctness, Woodard concludes the book with a glowing description of the wonders of “communalistic, environmentally minded, and female-dominated” First Nation – the huge, very sparsely inhabited far-North land mass inhabited by descendants of American aboriginal people.

     Thankfully, most of the book is better than this. Woodard is particularly good in his “founding” sections, explaining what sorts of people created Yankeedom, New Netherland, the Left Coast and the other regions he identifies as sharing a common culture and belief structure. In Tidewater, for example, “Virginia was an avowedly conservative area, Royalist in politics and Anglican in religion. Maryland was even more so, with the Lords Baltimore ruling their portion of the Chesapeake like medieval kings of yore.” On the other hand, the Midlands, “the most prototypically American of the nations,” owes its existence, surprisingly, to William Penn and the Quakers: “Difficult though it may be to understand today, the Quakers were considered a radical and dangerous force, the late-seventeenth-century equivalent of crossing the hippie movement with the Church of Scientology. …Their leaders strode naked on city streets or, daubed with excrement, into Anglican churches in efforts to provide models of humility.” The disparate nature of the regional areas makes it hard to understand how they united to fight the American Revolution, and Woodard has an explanation ready: they didn’t. Unite, that is. In fact, he says , “the four nations that did rebel – Yankeedom, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, and the Deep South – had little in common and strongly distrusted one another,” overcoming their profound differences only with great difficulty. Woodard’s reconsideration of the American Revolution is worth a book in itself, filled as it is with telling tidbits, such as this throwaway explanation of the much-reviled taxes imposed by the British on the American colonies: “The average American colonist’s tax burden was just one-twenty-sixth that of his British counterpart.”

     Woodard similarly rethinks the “manifest destiny” concept of expansion westward, showing that there were multiple westward moves rather than a single, unified one. The eventually established Far West, he writes, “is the one place where environment really did trump the cultural heritage of settlers. …As a result, the Far West has long been an internal colony of the continent’s older nations and federal government, which possessed the necessary capital [for development]. Its people are still often deeply resentful of their dependent status but have generally backed policies guaranteed to preserve the status quo.” That last statement, broad and unsupported, is typical of Woodard’s assertions, many of which are not nearly as obvious or clear as he thinks they are. Still, his take on cultures within North America is a fascinating one, and some of his comments, surprising on their face, are well grounded in fact and highly intriguing to contemplate: “Contrary to popular opinion, the Dixie bloc has not been a particularly stable coalition. The dominant parties – the Deep South and Greater Appalachia – have been archenemies for much of their history, having taken up arms against one another in both the American Revolution and the Civil War.” Indeed, Woodard’s trenchant analysis of the fault lines among “nations” during the Civil War is genuinely revelatory

     On the other hand, Woodard’s argument that 21st-century political deadlocks stem directly from the founding of the various regional cultures in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries is not always entirely convincing. But it does provide a new way of looking at modern “culture clashes” and a form of insight into the difficulty of resolving what seem to be differences of opinion but are in reality profound differences of belief. Unfortunately, to the extent that Woodard is right in seeing modern politics through this lens, the difficulties of governance seem insurmountable. And indeed, Woodard suggests that the political boundaries of the United State and Mexico, and maybe even Canada, are likely to change, perhaps dramatically, by the year 2100. If change does come, the map of North America will assuredly not look like the one Woodard offers of his 11 regional cultures. But it is not unthinkable that those cultures will indeed be responsible for redrawing at least some parts of the geographic and cartographic world.

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