Review: American Nations, Colin Woodard

American Nations, journalist Colin Woodward’s history of the rival “cultures” that comprise North America, might best be understood by aspiring writers as a cautionary tale about scope. It is one thing to write a convincing op-ed piece that makes the same arguments as Woodward’s book, but it is another thing entirely to try to document the histories of eleven cultures over six centuries in a three hundred page book. Woodward tries. He fails.

American Nations, Colin Woodard

American Nations, Colin Woodard

Woodward’s failure is not, as many students of history might sneer, that journalists shouldn’t write history. Woodward simply takes on too much, as is evident from the subtitle: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. That’s not what American Nations is really about, though. Woodward pays short shrift to Canada (although he does mention it, favorably, near the end of the book) and essentially ignores Mexico, with the exception of its northern states, which form the southern reaches of the culture dubbed “El Norte.” (Yes, Mexico is part of North America, even its south.) This book is not really about America the geographical entity, as in “the Americas,” but the USA.

Woodward is mainly concerned with the white cultures of the United States, which he terms Yankeedom, New Netherlands, Appalachia (or the Borderlands), the Midlands, the Tidewater, Deep South, the Far West, and the Left Coast. His history of these regions, at least through the Civil War and Reconstruction, seems sound, even if it is sparsely documented. There is something to be said for the arguments Woodward makes in the first half of the book. The Civil War, for instance, was obviously a regional conflict, but Woodward’s argument that it was also a cultural conflict between Yankeedom and the Deep South over control of the federal government sheds some light onto the hostilities and the subsequent political history of the country.

The second half of the book is less convincing. The tone is rushed. I imagine Woodward realized at this point the scope of his project and was eager to complete it. There are inconsistencies in Woodward’s arguments. If, for instance, New Netherlands (i.e., New York City) valued economic expediency even more than it did multiculturalism, why did its people consistently align themselves with Yankee policies over those of the Deep South? Yankees favored the progressive “perfection” of society, while the Southern oligarchs sought deregulation in order to enrich themselves and their brethren. One answer might be the presence of so many immigrants in NYC, but Woodward earlier dismisses immigrants as a cultural force: they were everywhere rapidly assimilated into the majority cultures in which they found themselves. (The descendants of certain immigrants might object to this statement!)

African-Americans, the minority that most shaped American history, are portrayed as victims of slavery and segregation. The cultural influence of blacks is limited, apparently, to barbecue and rock and roll. Not bad, but certainly African-Americans provided more to America than labor, foodways and music? Woodward mostly ignores the political influence of blacks, noting that they sided with Yankeedom in the wake of the Civil War. Blacks sided with the “Northern Alliance” (Yankeedom, the Midlands, New Netherlands and the Left Coast) when they regained voting rights beginning in the 1950s and ‘60s, but what about more recently? Presumably African-Americans mindlessly follow the lead of whatever culture is opposing the Deep South. Woodward, stressing the racist sentiments of the Deep South, Tidewater and the Borderlands, wholly ignores the extreme racism present throughout even the “tolerant” cultures of the North. (See James Loewen’s Sundown Towns for a horrifying description of Northern racism from the mid-nineteenth century through 2000.) It goes without saying that the indigenous peoples of the United States are wholly ignored, and Canada’s First People nearly so.

I don’t list all of these faults to pick on Woodward or to harp on how his thesis fails. I think there is something there. The first half of the book, in which Woodward discusses the histories of the cultures through the Civil War is especially strong, if one takes into account that Woodward is really limiting his attention to the white cultures that made up the United States. The second half of the book is rushed and overall less convincing. Woodward lists politicians and the cultures from which they originated, making slim connections between their platforms and their supposed cultural values. Cultures are, in the second half of the book, reduced to stereotypes. I’d certainly like to read a Southerner’s take on Woodward’s portrayal of the Deep South; I suspect it would be enlightening.

An interesting effort that falls short of its lofty goals.

(Note: I wrote this review on August 7, 2012, and originally posted it on LibraryThing and Goodreads. Its cross-posting here is part of an effort to consolidate all of my reviews in one place.)


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