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American Nations: A History of the Eleven…

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North… (2011)

by Colin Woodard

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By Colin Woodard – This 2011 book—a pick of my book club—is a thought-provoking analysis of the different cultural strains, mostly organized along geographic lines, that make up what author Sarah Vowell calls “the (somewhat) United States.” Woodard’s subtitle is “a history of the eleven rival regional cultures of North America.” Many of those rivalries, which date to our earliest history, well before the Revolutionary War, have been amplified, not erased, by subsequent events, and help to explain some of the political schisms we see today.
The answer to a frustrated electorate’s “Why can’t our politicians (and voters) ever agree on anything?” is partly that they never did. Of course, aggregate data hide a lot of individual differences, and none of the characterizations Woodward has developed for his eleven regions describe every individual living there, just the region’s general cultural tendencies. Some of his regions cross over into Canada and Mexico too.
The regions, which he says “have been hiding in plain sight throughout our history,” are:
• Yankeedom began as a “religious utopia in the New England wilderness.” Those early colonies emphasized education, local political control, and efforts aimed at the greater good of the community.
• New Netherland laid down the cultural underpinnings of greater New York City; a trading society that was multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and committed to freedom of inquiry. Its precepts were memorialized in the Bill of Rights.
• The Midlands, founded by English Quakers and organized around the middle class people predominantly of German background and moderate political opinions who don’t welcome government intrusion.
• Tidewater catered to conservative aristocratic elites who were gentleman farmers, strong on respect for authority and dependent on slave labor. It was dominant during the colonial period, but lost its standing by dint of its culture’s inability to expand beyond coastal areas.
• Greater Appalachia was founded by “wave upon wave of rough, bellicose settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of Northern Ireland, northern England, and the Scottish lowlands” who in their native lands formed a strong independent spirit, suspicious of aristocratic overlords and social reformers alike (think Mel Gibson in Braveheart).
• The Deep South, founded by Barbados slave lords, became the bastion of white supremacy and aristocratic privilege. It is the least democratic of the 11 regions while being “the wellspring of African American culture.”
• New France is an amalgam of the Canadian Province of Québec and some other areas of far eastern Canada as well as the Acadian (“Cajun”) territories of southern Louisiana.
• El Norte dates to the late 16th century, when the Spanish empire founded missions north into California. It includes Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado and Texas, as well as northern Mexican states that, Woodard says, are more oriented toward the United States than Mexico City.
• The Left Coast is a narrow strip from Monterey, California, to Juneau, Alaska, and includes San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. The cities were originally developed by Yankee traders who came by ship and the countryside by overland arrivals from the Appalachian region and the culture today is an amalgam of Yankee idealism and Appalachian independence.
• The Far West is the only area “where environmental factors truly trumped ethnic ones.” The region is unsuited for traditional farming, but its resources have been exploited by companies headquartered in distant cities and they and the federal government own vast tracts of land. Locals largely oppose federal interference (just in the news again lately), even as they depend on federal dollars.
• First Nation he defines as a large region in the far north, where the indigenous population has never given up its lands and still employs traditional cultural practices.
Like any analysis intended to look at history through a single lens, Woodard may tailor his arguments to support his approach. Nevertheless, he presents an intriguing hypothesis that carries the ring of truth. In this political season, many of the old antagonisms and patterns he describes are newly visible and, frankly, any cogent explanation of why Americans do some of the things we do is welcome! ( )
  Vicki_Weisfeld | Apr 14, 2016 |
Colm Toibin
  jmail | Mar 21, 2016 |
I finished this over the summer of 2015, and it has quickly become the second book* I recommend to anyone wishing to have a better structural understanding of the US. The author takes an approach more common in other regional histories, but unusual in studies of North America, to first differentiate "peoples" (or cultures) from their governmental units, and then identifiy several different such peoples within the scope of our continent spanning Federal Republic. It has provided a valuable thread in understanding many of the historical and current "domestic" conflicts in the US.

*Note: the first is The Fourth Turning by Strauss and Howe

(2015 Review #4) ( )
  bohannon | Aug 30, 2015 |
The thesis is brilliant in its simplicity. Woodward goes a little wonky when he attempts to explain the religious aspects of these various "micro-geographies" but his political analysis is wonderfully done and insightful. ( )
  Jared_Runck | Jun 12, 2015 |
I enjoyed this book. The author makes no secret of his yankee leanings, and is clearly anti-dixie. That being said, I still enjoyed the analysis; especially the speculation about possible futures in the last quarter of the book. I'm not a huge reader of history for fun. This was an excellent blend of history and supposition. It was light enough to interest any reader, and yet insightful/researched enough to keep history buffs engaged. All in all a good read. ( )
  Lucifey | Jan 10, 2015 |
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For all its interest, Mr. Woodard's narrative is studded with enough annoying errors to make one wary of its often original analysis. . . .Even more annoying are claims that could come from 1940s liberals (Texas is just a low-wage resource colony) or contemporary left-wing blogs (Christian conservatives seek the Baptist equivalent of Sharia law). Mr. Woodard tells us, as so many Jeremiahs have, that the United States is in decline and, abruptly, that it will break up because the Soviet Union did so. But this prediction goes against the thrust of his narrative, which shows how a diverse nation has, despite its differences, stuck together.

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Woodard, Colinprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dixon, WalterNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For my father,
James Strohn Woodard,
who taught me to read and write
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On a hot late-August day in 2010, television personality Glenn Beck held a rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the forty-seventh anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. (Introduction)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0670022969, Hardcover)

An illuminating history of North America's eleven rival cultural regions that explodes the red state-blue state myth.

North America was settled by people with distinct religious, political, and ethnographic characteristics, creating regional cultures that have been at odds with one another ever since. Subsequent immigrants didn't confront or assimilate into an "American" or "Canadian" culture, but rather into one of the eleven distinct regional ones that spread over the continent each staking out mutually exclusive territory.

In American Nations, Colin Woodard leads us on a journey through the history of our fractured continent, and the rivalries and alliances between its component nations, which conform to neither state nor international boundaries. He illustrates and explains why "American" values vary sharply from one region to another. Woodard reveals how intranational differences have played a pivotal role at every point in the continent's history, from the American Revolution and the Civil War to the tumultuous sixties and the "blue county/red county" maps of recent presidential elections. American Nations is a revolutionary and revelatory take on America's myriad identities and how the conflicts between them have shaped our past and are molding our future.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:27 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

The author describes eleven rival regional "nations" in the United States (Yankeedom, New Netherland, the Midlands, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, the Deep South, New France, El Norte, the Left Coast, the Far West, and First Nation), and how these deep roots continue to influence our politics today.… (more)

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