September 07, 2011

Bookshelf: American Nations

Sam Smith

I was no more than a third the way into Colin Woodard’s American Nations when the book disappeared. It turned out that my visiting son had removed it to his bedroom. In a couple of days he returned it complete with an excellent synopsis that I wish I had copied down. Then it disappeared again, this time thanks to a friend who was visiting us. Just when I was about to hide it myself, I found the book on the kitchen table opened to page nine with the corner turned down. My wife was the new culprit.

I have never had such difficulty holding on to a book in my own house, but it didn’t really surprise me because Woodard’s look at eleven cultures that shaped our nation - at the start, and still do – is not only extremely well written, it challenges a wealth of assumptions many of us were taught – and may still believe – about who made our land and how.

The book is devoid of great men and theories about them. Instead Woodard describes how we came to be defined by cultures including The First Nation (indigenous Americans), The Midlands (from New Jersey to Missouri), New Netherlands (New York City area), Greater Appalachia (from West Virginia to part of Texas) , the Far West, the Left Coast, and the place Europeans first inhabited (although few Americans are taught this), El Norte, the Spanish settled lower Southwest.

Woodard is not the first to attempt such a cultural revision of American history. For example, David Hackett Fischer’s division of Yankeedom into four cultures is an invaluable classic. But what Woodard has done is not merely tell about our past but relate it to what is happening to us today.

For example, I recently wrote about the similarities between the South’s attempt to undo the Civil War during Post-Reconstruction and its current attempt to undo seventy years of political progress.

Woodard describes puts it all in a broader context:

“The goal of the Deep Southern oligarchy has been consistent for over four centuries: to control and maintain a one party state with a colonial style economy based on large scale agriculture and the extraction of primary resources by a compliant, poorly educated, low wage workforce . . . On being compelled by force of arms to give up their workforce, Deep Southerners developed caste and sharecropper systems to meet their labor needs, as well as a system of poll taxes and literacy tests to keep former slaves and white rabble out of the political process. When these systems were challenged by African Americans and the federal government, they rallied poor whites in their nation, in Tidewater, and Appalachia to their cause through fear mongering: The races would mix. Daughters would be defiled. Yankees would take away their guns and Bibles and convert their children to secular humanism, environmentalism, communism, and homosexuality.”

In many sense, we are still fighting a milder version of the Civil War. Consider that almost two thirds of the Tea Party caucus in Congress comes from the South.

Woodard repeatedly introduces us to aspects of our history we may not have known or noticed. Such as how the Tidewater elite – including some of the most revered figures of the Revolution - modeled themselves on slave owning Athens while Yankeedom and the Midlands used a Germanic model of freedom. Such as how the Puritans slit the nostrils, cut off the ears of Quakers, branding their faces with an “H” for heretic. Or how only 38 of the first 104 settlers were still alive at Jamestown a mere nine months after their arrival. Or how, to this day, New York City still reflects its Dutch forebears though their descendants have all but disappeared. Or, more recently, how a 2002 Gallup poll found 62% of southerners supporting our war in Iraq compared to only 47% of Midwesterners.

One problem with presenting such an impressive overarching construct is that it inevitably suggests exceptions. Woodard notes some of them himself. Are the Mormons a separate nation? Is Milwaukee really a Midland city trapped in Yankeedom? And Woodard’s own magnificent book, The Lobster Coast, outlines the difference in the Maine and Massachusetts versions of Yankeedom.

I found myself also wondering: where are the Jews and the Irish Catholics, small in number but essential to an American definition? And I would have liked a discussion of what has been called part cultures, i.e. those whose identity is created in part by their relationship to another culture.

For example, although my native Washington DC was in the segregated south, it responded to the civil rights movement far more peacefully than, say, Chicago or Boston. One reason, I suspect, is because blacks were truly alien in the northern cities, whereas in a southern (but not Deep South) town like DC they were mistreated neighbors rather than frightening strangers. Similarly, I remember once, while in the Virginia countryside, hearing in the distance what I thought was a black religious service of some sort. I found, instead, a bunch of whites conducting a running water baptism in a river. I wondered what they would have thought if I had told them about my misapprehension. Cultures can blend and be dependent on each other in ways not recognized even by their participants.

Yet Woodward’s book also reminded me of the cultural conflict between native black Washingtonians and more recently arrived blacks from the Deep South. The uber-culture had stuck its head up once more.

As Woodard points out, digging into regional cultures can be like peeling an onion, In the end – either in Massachusetts or Georgia – the overall culture is the one that triumphs.

Still there are interesting aspects of culture that get too little attention. For example, how much less relevant has television and the internet made traditional regional cultures? How has culture shopping changed the game creating the punk Buddhist, Hindu converts to Unitarianism or a follower of Confucianism as well as the Dallas Cowboys? The mere number of cultural traits and values available for adoption in a world that watches MTV has engorged us with possibilities.

And how has conscious cultural blending in employment, schools, employment and elsewhere made a difference? I was reminded of this the other day listening to my seven year old white granddaughter several times calling her three year old sister, “Bro.” We are all part cultures now.

Finally, there is the danger in reading a book like this that we may feel we are trapped. Yet, that doesn’t have to be. As one who has lived in Tidewater, the Midlands and Yankeedom I am fascinated by the cultural traits I have consciously adopted and those that just embedded themselves without any help. I am also fascinated by those far too little appreciated Americans – whether in politics, the media or entertainment – who manage to turn our eleven nations into one, at least as long as they are around. Over and over, they are the ones that save us.

At a personal level, I think the secret is in viewing one’s own culture as a gift and not a cell. It defines our past and present but is not a life sentence. Still, you have to know what you’re working with and American Nations helps in a big way.

This is also a point that Star Trek's Captain Jean-Luc Picard and Lt. Commander Data, the android officer aboard the starship Enterprise, discussed:

DATA: I have analyzed over four thousand different religious and philosophical systems as well as over two hundred psychological schools of thought in an effort to understand what happened…

PICARD: I'm curious, Mr. Data. Why are you looking at all these other cultures?

DATA: The interpretation of visions and other metaphysical experiences are almost always culturally derived and I have no culture of my own.

PICARD: Yes, you do. You're a culture of one. Which is no less valid than a culture of one billion. Perhaps the key to understanding your experience is to stop looking into other sources for meaning. When we look at Michelangelo's David or Seme's Tomb we don't ask what does this mean to other people. The real question is what does it mean to us.

Read American Nations with this in mind and you’ll appreciate and understand your country and your own culture in a new and exciting way.

Finally, if you happen to be an American history student, a history professor or a political commentator, read this book before you write too many more words. You not only will be glad you did, you won’t seem blank when somebody asks you about it. Which, given the book’s value, they surely will.