America Through a Different Sort of Looking Glass

To be forthcoming, this is a book report, but stay with me. American Nations, a History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, by Colin Woodward is one of the twenty-two books (F and NF) that our men's book club reads annually, but one that completely grabbed me and introduced me to a much different understanding than simply the "red state-blue state" macro analysis that we see on the political maps. Much more can be learned.

Woodward starts with the original thirteen colonies and the culturally different people who settled each. From that beginning point, he makes the persuasive argument that these colonies—in fact they were quite independent and considered themselves virtually sovereign entities—moved into several groupings based on differing common belief systems and economic emphasis. It's much too complex a discussion to capsule in few words, but Woodward convincingly shows how the mostly British immigrants, augmented later by waves from Ireland, Germany, and Italy, expanded the country westward, and evolved strong different regional cultures that persist to this day. Add to that the incredible city-state of metropolitan New York City, with its Dutch history of inclusiveness and social liberalism, the "New France" influence around New Orleans, and the growing Hispanic cultures that spread into the southwest and are growing, and the author draws a county-by-county map of the "American Nations," where the word nation denotes the community of people organized along similar belief structures.

A disclaimer here: the author writes from the perspective of New England, which he describes as "Yankeedom," an area strongly influenced by Puritan protestant religious and social beliefs, small owner-tilled farms, as well as a devotion to "common good" in terms of strong education and citizen participation.

He develops the argument that the two politically dominant cultures in the country were, and still are, Yankeedom and the "Deep South," an area peopled originally by British planters from Barbados, "the richest and most horrifying society in the English-speaking world," where they had established a brutal slave-based economy based on sugarcane. This social and agriculture system transitioned to the early US with immigration to the port of Charleston, SC, where the plantation system based on slave labor started in the low country, and eventually spread into the cotton growing areas westward and into the Mississippi Delta land of western Tennessee and Arkansas. The Deep South was characterized by strong protestant religious beliefs that were used (as by the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa) to justify slavery on biblical terms, and was anchored by a handful of elite large land owners with low-wage or slave agricultural workers, a system of economic and social inequality.

These two cultures fundamentally have been at odds, if not war, for nearly 400 years, and compete politically by seeking to ally with the other "nations," as defined by Woodward. In addition to "New Netherland," which he calls the city-state of metropolitan New York City, and "New France," both of which became landlocked, others include the "Tidewater" area, set along the lowlands of the Chesapeake river and bay system, one of the oldest populated areas, strongly influenced by the British Anglican church and a genteel patrician social structure, "The Midlands," the middle-American culture of Philadelphia spread to the Midwest , and "Greater Appalachia," the Scots-Irish dominated highland/upcountry borderlands between the "Deep South" and the "Midlands." In addition, the Spanish-Mexican culture of Catholic "El Norte" to the southwest, "The Left Coast,"—established by Yankee trading ships in the harbors of San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle—secular, well educated, and socially liberal, and "The Far West," the arid and mountainous western plains and west to the Rockies and Cascades featuring extreme individualism in a harsh and rugged land, make up the contiguous land mass.

One can find many things to disagree with in this book, but it's the best attempt I've seen at describing the reason why the fundamental polarity exists in our nation's political system—a deep division of religious/secular, personal freedom, and political attitudes that has existed for centuries.

Woodward includes an epilogue, in which he wonders aloud what the U.S. will look like in 100 years. It's not a stretch at all to envision a much different nation or nations, with different borders and demographics. This book will give the reader much history to digest, and examines some of the factors that make up the culture and political struggles now underway in this country.


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James Kennedy George, Jr (Jim George)
Author, Reunion, a novel about relationships.

Available in  Hard Cover, Soft Cover, and all eBook formats on the Internet from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all other Internet retailers, as well as on-order in print format from any book store. In stock at several book stores, including Book People in Austin, Texas, Tamarack on the West Virginia Turnpike, and Hearthside Books in Bluefield, West Virginia.

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7 Responses

  1. Thanks for this book review. I am so interested in how people self sort...and cling to one another...seems very organic to me.
    • Thanks for the comment. Here are some additional comments that came in through emails: From LN: Thanks for the synopsis. Very interesting review of the "building blocks" of the greatest nation in the history of the world. AND, it reminds us of the reasons that the peoples of ALL of these diverse cultures came to America, in our early years, was because, in varying degrees, they were all unhappy with the social / political climate from whence they came. It is interesting that each culture brought with them the seeds of the very culture they sought to escape. Hence, the "Melting Pot". It will be interesting to see what happens to our country in the next 50 years. Hopefully, our Democratic- Republic will not follow the path of every "Democracy" in history. From DB: Wow, thanks for the blog on American Nations, will be getting a copy - seems like the sort of stuff that will have me doing a rapid cover to cover read! Being the son of a dad who claimed Scots-Irish lineage and a coal miners daughter of English/Pennsylvania Dutch background, the subject matter seems right down my alley. From JH: What a book that must have been. His analysis of America is very interesting. I think the Philadelphia Quaker influence that went with my relatives to the midwest had a great moderating influence in civil affairs. The Scots in the Carolinas were different from those in PA. But both had a great work ethic which helped the southern group develop the west. From NS: When I finished Reunion, I thought we could spend a nice afternoon out on my porch comparing our formative years. I envisioned an interesting conversation. I grew up in two suburban Boston towns. The first, blue collar. The later one, white collar and pretty much split evenly, Yankee Protestant/Catholic/Jewish. I only know the south through my wife, who is from TN not far from W.Va. My sense is that it was not a whole lot different than your home town in the 50s and 60s. Her HS graduating class was the first to be integrated. I have not paid much attention to your blogs until recently. I can see how your religion commentary of a few weeks ago would get you in trouble with people from red states, but I think you hit the nail squarely. Your short review of Colin Woodward's book is interesting. Perhaps I'll get to read it. I think trying to explain our current social divisions through regional differences alone won't do it. I expect the country will break out of its political stalemate once people of color vote in sufficient numbers and the discussion moves back toward the center where it had been. From DS: Thanks for the info on this book. I looked at the descriptions on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, read some of the reviews, and looked at the first few pages on-line. This is right up my alley. We are on vacation ... , but I'm going to order a copy when we get back. That must be an interesting book club you belong to. Thanks again for the heads up
  2. Another comment from RH: Good morning! I’m sitting here trying to figure out how best to say what I’m thinking. One way to start might be to suggest how blessed you are, to have had one successful career and now to have begun another. Can’t tell you how much (my wife) and I enjoy reading your blog(s). How you’ve managed to read, research, focus and then write so very well about complicated issues simply boggles me. Our son is a historian and is currently teaching at (a major university). He is also impressed with your above mentioned pieces. Please don’t stop; you’re just getting better and better.
  3. Peggy Greenawalt
    Interesting blog and book for sure.....tells me why it is wonderful that I was born in the North but have lived in the South for 20 some years. I think you develop wisdom and insight into our nation by living several places and travelling. Those that have never left Texas or the South or New England or Yankee landhave missed much about the great culture of our country. Thanks for sharing this story. You have experienced both and know the blessings of each. I am so glad that I have had this in my life as well as living in Europe. Things are not so black and white any more as I get to this older age! Hope you and your wife are doing well. Peggy
  4. Melissa McCleery
    Poppy, sounds like a really interesting book. Like Shanny said, it's so interesting to see how people and cultures sort, and how these societies from so long ago are still evident in todays communities. Definitely something I'd like to read. Memo
  5. My granddaughter sent a wonderful link that shows the differences in the way several common words are pronounced around the country. These linguistic differences tie very well to the cultural maps developed by the author of "American Nations." Take a gander. URL for "linguistic traits" map:
  6. Another comment by email: From ME, Excellent blog comments. You have tweaked my interest in this book by Woodward. Peace.

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