Book Review: American Nations by Colin Woodard
Book: American Nations: A History of The Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard
Publication date: 2011
Summary: American Nations: A History of The Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America covers the founding and expansion of each of the identified “nations.” Geographically, these nations go from El Norte in the south, covering northern Mexico and some of southwest US, to First Nation in the far north, from Greenland across northern Canada and into Alaska. Chronologically, they begin with El Norte, continue with New France (now part of Canada and the Cajun area of the southern US), and on to the founding stories more familiar to those of us in the US — Jamestown in the Tidewater region and Plymouth in Yankeedom.
The first third of the book covers the founding of 9 of the 11 nations, up to 1769. The roots of much of what became the competing rivalries that persist to this day were set at that time. The next section covers the Revolutionary War period and the formation of the US–all much less unified than we normally perceive looking back on it. Part 3 covers westward expansion and the Civil War, more tied to each other than I previously understood. Part 4 brings us up to current times, spinning out how the original settlers and their competing ideals continue to cause political turmoil on all the major issues of the day including approaches to economic problems, war and peace, and every social issue.
Thoughts: American Nations answers a question that sometimes distresses me. How can we Americans hold polar opposite opinions of what it means to be Americans? Are we rugged individuals or communities of barn raisers? Are we a melting pot committed to helping our newest residents to become citizens that blend into our society? Or, are we a country that can model to the world how to value the diversity of many separate cultures? Or, are we a country that builds tall fences and throws up barriers to immigration? Do we believe in sacrificing for the greater good and using government as a tool for achieving that greater good? Or, do we want government to stay out of our affairs?
The answers to those questions and more, according to American Nations, depends on where you live and the very different histories and philosophies that are prominent in those areas.
My husband, Rick, read this book first after seeing the author interviewed on the PBS Newshour: Author Takes Fresh Look at Shaping of U.S. Cultural, Political Landscape. It’s an 8 minute video — definitely worth the time whether or not you intend to read the book.
Rick read this book directly after reading Ron Chernow’s biography, Alexander Hamilton. With that recent experience, Rick felt that Woodard’s treatment of Hamilton in American Nations was too harsh. That led both of us, in our reading of this book, to be more skeptical readers, especially of the more virulent criticisms on people and cultures in this book.
Still, even read with a grain of salt, this book lays out an intriguing hypothesis and one that has given me a helpful paradigm for explaining some of the strange things that happen in the US political arena. This has been especially fun and useful as a spectator of this year’s presidential primary contests.
This book is not at all about individuals but, of course, one of the fun things about reading it is to figure out where I fit into the eleven nations. According to the map in the front of the book, I grew up in a Greater Appalachian county in Missouri and I currently live in a Greater Appalachian city. My parents both grew up in Indiana, one in a Greater Appalachian county and the other in a county associated with The Midlands. All of those locations, however, are on a border between Greater Appalachian and The Midlands. In fact, on page 7, Woodard describes St. Louis as a key border city between The Midlands and Greater Appalachia.
As I read the book, I associated myself more with The Midlands attitude than any other. But I recognized some of the Greater Appalachian ones in family members, friends, and neighbors and, even, occasionally in myself. It helps explain some of the conflicting notions that I can sometimes hold in my brain at the same time.
Appeal: This book has wide appeal. Even if you’re not that excited about history but are fascinated by the way that this country works (or, more importantly, doesn’t work), this book will provide a paradigm for thinking about that.
I didn’t find any other book bloggers who read and reviewed this book, although it received coverage in the conventional press when it was published last fall. Are you interested in this book and its concepts? Why or why not?
Sounds like an interesting read, though at only 326 pages I’m surprised at how short it is.
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