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Our regional inheritance


The tracing of American regional inheritance comprises one of the richest fields for patriotic study. In the fine historical works of David Hackett Fischer, and the more breezy sketches of Colin Woodard, among many other books, American regionalism emerges dynamically. Its patterns of regional texture and integrity illuminate much that is otherwise obscure in the history of the North American continent.

Within so large a Republic as ours, regions often stand for past dispersions of whole nations. That it is why, as a matter of history, and often observable in the present, it is descriptively possible, without undue exaggeration, to speak in the plural of the American Nations.

Fischer’s book focuses tightly on the Anglo and Celtic peoples who settled the rugged parts interior to the Eastern Seaboard: the Nation of Greater Appalachia. Woodard’s lighter fare broadens the historical lens to compass Acadians, Spaniards, Germans, Dutch, Frenchmen and Native Americans.

The vigor and variety of these regional nations should kindle in us a surer patriotism than any facsimile of perfect national consolidation, a kind of continental-wide General Will, could possibly manage. We may appreciate the virtues of other regions, but we are mostly at home with our own people in our own nation.

We know that from tensions among these American nations much of our country’s drama springs. More than once the nations have threatened to come to blows; once they came to very severe blows.

[UPDATED with image. Appomattox River, 1864, Library of Congress]

It will surprise no one, on reflection, to learn that the sons of fighting Appalachia still preponderate in the US military. Their recruitment still gives immense strength to American arms. The Southern accent on the military man, as a trope in film, literature, television, song, is often the very mark of martial America.

Another instance: The fusion of the Calvinist crusaderism into later, more secular movements — those known to posterity as Abolition and Civil Rights — is likewise well understood as, in part, an inheritance of the Yankee nation.

Less commonly realized is that New York’s earliest imprint was Dutch: the commercial center of world capital passed from Amsterdam to New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island. Merchants, hustlers, financiers from distant lands set up shop.

One of the earliest “only in America” stories: In 17th-century New York, an enterprising North African farmed himself into a fortune, just outside the wall of Wall Street fame; while inside the wall Spanish and Portuguese Jews, refugees from the Inquisition, re-gathered themselves for future endeavors of finance and industry.

Still less is it apprehended that in the Canadian Maritimes and northern Maine, the French policy of assimilation and equality toward Native Americans resulted in the vanishing of many of France’s ambitious sons, who bid farewell to aristocratic conceit, court decadence, and Jesuit casuistry, and set their minds to assimilating into primitive North American Nativism. This was some of the same generation of liberal aristocrats and intrepid bourgeoisie whose enthusiasms would astound the world back in France. They took Indian wives and adopted Indian mores. They embodied Rousseau’s radical primitivism as their countrymen would his radical republicanism. (In the midst of today’s prominent racial tensions, it’s easy to forget the whole tormented history of Native Americans under pressure from European expansion. Oddly, our primary popular contact with this comes via proxy battles involving a detestable professional football team in northern Virginia. The serviceable Netflix series Longmire, which follows the adventures of a hardnosed sheriff in rural Wyoming, where much of the drama emerges from a local Cheyenne reservation, provides some relief from this deficiency.)

From this an even more unbridled realization strikes the mind. Canada is a very interesting place indeed. Québécois are a unique people. “Franco-Canadian” is a deeply fascinating blend. Perhaps it is high time Americans found some humility to learn about our neighbors to the north. The Canadians stormed one of the nastiest beaches on D-Day, after all.

Meanwhile, how some French-derived Acadians, posterity of early Canada, moved south, intermixed with local blacks, whites and Hispanics, became Cajuns, and produced the best food in North America — why here is a colorful tale that many Louisianans colorfully tell.

So these American regions are not without interest and delight for the student of the history of man upon this continent. I daresay regional American history is far more interesting, in its basic lineaments, than confected courses of study in narrow abstract categories of politicized grievance, like those which dominate the faddish history departments of today.

It is the regional historical richness of the American South, by way of example, that supplies us with the truest picture of the suffering visited upon blacks in this country. Southern history, in its fullest, barest, most unvarnished detail, is a better education in what the academics call intersectionality than any conjured vision of exotic grudges, skin pigmentation, or abbreviated sexualities. For the true history of the South, sub specie aeternitatis, is also a most searching and painful examination of man’s inhumanity to man. Right alongside the extraordinary martial nobility of the Southern fighting man, there is wicked oppression, unbroken misery, boundless lies, and tyranny at every turn. But blacks, while enduring this and much more, nevertheless supplied the South with half her greatest songs, half her greatest oratory: a whole popular literature of liberty under subjugation. Southern history without this singular story is incomprehensible.

Note well that this is not true for all regions. The Mountain West, even granting the Indian wars, has no comparable legacy of vicious oppression. Colorado didn’t even become a state until a decade after Richmond fell to the Union Army. There were racists, some wielding official power; but there was not a determined racist regime. Likewise, while there are countless superb songs and stories of the Mississippi, few great blues tunes or Huck Finn tales have been sung about the South Platte. You cannot play golf in Denver today, as you can in numerous Southern cities, on the very same fields where a hundred and fifty years ago Americans fought to the death over the question of slavery. Lincoln said right equals might; Booth said might equals right; Sherman said war is hell. These things were tested in the South, and left their traces there wholly unlike elsewhere in the country.

I can even appreciate those lovers of regional America whose pantheistic adoration made them cranks: Ed Abbey and his wild romance of Arches National Park or Aldo Leopold’s sandy-soil prose love poetry of his amours with Wisconsin.

Our national politics and commercial culture have little patience and even less sympathy for this regional variety. Better to appeal to a single national market when hawking your products. Better to shuffle humans around like accounting figures when nationalizing industries. That marketing flattery which, out of a glib and avaricious superficiality, occasionally treats the American regions as tolerable curiosities or amusements: this flattery amounts to little more than ignorance of historical diversity, masquerading as principled dedication to diversity. The emptiness of the principle is quite the equal, for want honor, of the cynicism of the flattery. We’re taught to love the word but despise the thing.

Dostoevsky spent countless hours churning out notebook after notebook of dialogue, never to be published, but rather to habituate himself to the speech patterns of his characters. I fancy that regionalism within the history of a country is like good slang or vernacular within a great novel. It fixes character; it signals integrity of origin, and furnishes depth of feeling; it fosters wider scope for intuition. Imagination is the soul of regionalism; and its suffocation bodes ills for that richness of particularity which is the true heart of American diversity.

Comments (4)


I just finished reading a novel "Winter's Bone" by Daniel Woodrell who has a string of well relieved novels situated in the Ozarks. Winter's Bone captures regional culture, dialogue, dialects, religious history, brutal and enduring tribal inheritances, head-shaking personal honor codes, and amazing toughness and perseverance. This strangely admirable meth(previously moonshine) ravished region is a small example of the the endurance of American regionalism and how rich it is.

Great post, Paul. Thank you!

I have appreciated the ability of Marilynne Robinson to capture the regional heritage of Iowa. Gilead reminds us that there could have been people in the 1950's whose lives would have been shaped (through the generation of grandparents) by the events surrounding Bleeding Kansas, for example.

Music is another great way in which the regional heritage of the United States survives. I'm thinking here of bluegrass, blues, New Orleans jazz, etc.


Zydeco is a deeply regional form of music which,to my mind,has resisted undue homogenizing influences of commercialization.

Gilead was impressive and inspiring in its portrayal of the ongoing impact of anti-slavery visionaries and fanatics.

In the midst of today’s prominent racial tensions, it’s easy to forget the whole tormented history of Native Americans under pressure from European expansion. Oddly, our primary popular contact with this comes via proxy battles involving a detestable professional football team in northern Virginia.

Hey, just because their play is execrable doesn't mean they are detestable. And besides, they actually play (Sundays) in suburban Maryland. And besides besides, they managed a feat of racking up more L's than both the Denver Broncos and the Atlanta Falcons combined, no trivial feet, that!

To be sure, it does seem that the proxy struggles of so-called "local" teams, put together from players around the country and world, is almost the only "local" unifying force around with any oomph. But, as you suggest, that is perhaps more a charade than real.

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