Colin Woodard’s latest book, American Nations, reminds me of the comedian Mike Myers and his “Saturday Night Live” sketch Coffee Talk. You know the bit: Mr. Myers dresses as a middle-aged Jewish woman, dons an outrageous Bronx accent, and announces that “The New Deal was neither new, nor was it a deal. Discuss.”
Other hallowed topics of American history that Myers butchered in the early 1990s included the Civil War, Radical Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, and the state of Rhode Island. To this list, Myers might have added one more: the United States.
That the US is neither united nor a collection of states is the central discussion of Woodard’s provocative thesis. In “American Nations,” he persuasively reshapes our understanding of how the American political entity came to be.
First, Woodard (a longtime Monitor contributor) says that we must distinguish between a state and a nation. The former, he explains, is a political entity, what we generally think of as a country: Kenya, Panama, or New Zealand. A nation is a cultural entity, a group of people who are connected by “ethnic origin, language, historical experience, artifacts and symbols.” Americans may have a national government – we may be a state in the eyes of the world – but up close we are a collection of rival cultural nations including First Nation, Yankeedom, New Netherland, the Midlands, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, the Deep South, El Norte, the Far West, New France, and the Left Coast.
Second, he argues that national unity is a fiction. When you break the country down culturally, it becomes clear that American history is largely a story of regional self-interest. He writes, “Our true Founders didn’t have an ‘original intent’ we can refer back to in challenging times; they had original intents.” In fact, from the country’s first settlements in the 1600s straight through post-Civil War Reconstruction, regions formed alliances based not on firmly held ideologies (pro-slavery or anti-slavery is an obvious example) but based on their own long-term self-preservation. In this sense, no current politician can claim to represent the “real” America, because there isn’t one. There never was.
Woodard organizes his book both chronologically and geographically, exploring each nation from its founding to present day. Here, Woodard gives us a unique opportunity to look critically at our own region and to understand the complicated and, sometimes unexpected, relationships between the country’s multiple nations. For example, the Deep South and Greater Appalachia have shared a strong political alliance since the days of Reconstruction, but this fact masks the deep enmity these regions have historically held for one another. Similarly, we think of New Netherland (today’s Manhattan and its environs) as inherently progressive. In fact, this region was staunchly in favor of British rule during the early period of the Revolution and only reluctantly joined the Union in the Civil War.
Woodard goes much broader here than he did in an earlier book, “The Lobster Coast,” in which he followed one region for 400 years. In “American Nations,” for the most part, he balances multiple angles well, giving us just enough detail. But the final section, titled “Culture Wars: 1878-2010,” feels like a gloss instead of the measured discussion we’ve seen up to that point. In particular, his treatment of conservative Christianity deserves much more attention. He embarks on a fascinating discussion of two opposing ideologies – public and private Protestantism – opposing worldviews that are largely responsible for our current political and cultural deadlock.
But Woodard doesn’t return to these opposing viewpoints with any great detail in discussing where America might be headed. In fact, he doesn’t discuss where we’re going much at all. And so we are left with a fascinating new take on our history – but not enough insight into our future.
Jennifer Miller’s debut novel, “The Year of the Gadfly,” will be published in May 2012.