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An illuminating history of North America's 11 rival cultural regions that explodes the red state/blue state myth.
North America was settled by people with distinct religious, political, and ethnographic characteristics, creating regional cultures that have been at odds with one another ever since. Subsequent immigrants didn't confront or assimilate into an "American" or "Canadian" culture, but rather into one of the 11 distinct regional ones that spread over the continent, each staking out mutually exclusive territory.
In American Nations, Colin Woodard leads us on a journey through the history of our fractured continent and the rivalries and alliances between its component nations, which conform to neither state nor international boundaries. He illustrates and explains why "American" values vary sharply from one region to another.
Woodard reveals how intranational differences have played a pivotal role at every point in the continent's history, from the American Revolution and the Civil War to the tumultuous sixties and the "blue county/red county" maps of recent presidential elections. American Nations is a revolutionary and revelatory take on America's myriad identities and how the conflicts between them have shaped our past and are molding our future.
The thesis of American Nations is that America can best be understood as a series of eleven regional cultures. American history can thus be best understood as the outcomes of interactions amongst these several cultures. There is, of course, nothing new in viewing American culture as a series of encounters between North and South. And political analysts regularly take note of regional differences in voting patterns.
But Woodard goes deeper, exploring the history that shaped not just North and South and West. Woodard includes the French culture of Louisiana and Quebec and the culture of El Norte, which spans not just large swathes of the Southwest United States but also much of northern Mexico. He also divides the South into the Deep South, the Tidewater of Virginia, and Appalachia. He notes differences between Yankee New Englanders and the diverse Dutch culture of New York (this is only confusing because of the name of a baseball team). He differentiates the Left Coast from the more libertarian western rockies region. The nuances strengthen the thesis, because they make regional explanations work better.
Woodard delves deeply into the original groups of settlers that laid down the patterns of these regional cultures. He then demonstrates how these cultures attracted other like-minded cultures. For instance, the non-violent Quakers of Pennsylvania attracted German farmers, who then pushed into the Midwest. This shared culture, in turn, attracted the highly cooperative Scandinavians. Over time, they moderated between the Yankees of New England and the Deep South.
Woodard traces the patterns of migrations that took say the Scotch-Irish from upstate New York south along the Appalachians. He traces patterns of voting behavior, patterns of regional alignment, and the sources of power in American politics. All of this holds extraordinary explanatory value. And it makes for a very interesting and entertaining listen.
However, it is not altogether clear what Woodard thinks holds these cultures together over time. To believe his thesis, we would need to negate environmental, economic, and political explanations of behavior. Somehow, we would have to account for how in moving from agricultural to industrial to post-industrial society, these cultural difference have somehow held. Altogether, these concerns suggest the thesis is overstated, that understanding these regional sub-cultures is merely one important strand in understanding what makes America work.
But as we become an increasingly diverse culture, it is heartening to look back upon our shared history not as some ever shifting monolith, but rather as a series of conflicts and compromises amongst quite different sub-cultures. For recognizing how our institutions have already accommodated so much difference, of not just immigrants but of the most deeply American patriots, suggests that we have more resources for integrating diversity than we might believe.
The book made me look at our nation differently. It laid down a paradigm through which I viewed the next couple of dozen American history books I read after it. It is hard to ask more of a history book. Certainly it holds more explanatory power than much longer books like Paul Johnson's "History of the American People." If you choose to read American Nations and you like it, check out, "Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement," by David Hackett Fischer. It is at one and the same time more specific and more academic and also a great listen. Hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
86 of 89 people found this review helpful
What aspect of Walter Dixon’s performance would you have changed?
At times, Dixon was fairly monotone, but the performance was steady and still entertaining. Actually, it was humorous to hear him attempt some regional accents, which he didn't do particularly well.<br/><br/>
Any additional comments?
The majority of the book, from the creation of the first settlements in North America through the end of the Civil War is terrific. Afterwards, the author begins to equate all things that most Americans currently find politically conservative or libertarian in aspect as a product of Deep Southern or "Borderlander" thought and is therefore lumped into the same categories as white supremacy and slavery. In fact, the author's fairly biased point of view becomes more pronounced as he attempts to stretch his thesis to current events, with multiple digs at institutions like the Tea Party and the present day incarnation of the Republican party, while professing a love of a strong centralized government as a means to unite all Americans and a need to put aside individual liberties for the sake of the nation and the "common good.: Garreau's Nine Nations of North America is a better book on the fractured cultural history of the United States without many of the biases that Woodard seems to harbor, but that's not available yet on Audible.
64 of 72 people found this review helpful
I enjoyed this book. The author makes no secret of his yankee leanings, and is clearly anti-dixie. That being said, I still enjoyed the analysis; especially the speculation about possible futures in the last quarter of the book. I'm not a huge reader of history for fun. This was an excellent blend of history and supposition. It was light enough to interest any reader, and yet insightful/researched enough to keep history buffs engaged. All in all a good read.
48 of 54 people found this review helpful
I started reading this book because I wanted to understand why my home state of Ohio is so important in American elections. As it turns out, Ohio mixes three distinct "nations": Midland, Appalachia, and Yankee, which accounts for the wildly diverging politics of different parts of the state. In that sense, Ohio really is a microcosm of a large swath of the United States.
Thanks to this book, I have a much better grasp of the foundations of the Republican and Democratic parties. Certain contradictions in behavior now make much more sense.
The latter portion of the book serves as an excellent primer for the political forces that will shape the 2016 presidential election. It also suggests why American politics is currently stagnating.
For that reason, I would call it a good companion book to "Maxwell's Demon and the Golden Apple" by Randall L. Schweller, which discusses the importance of chaos in energizing a political system (but is not yet available in audio).
26 of 29 people found this review helpful
I stumbled into this book at a Barnes and Noble, and while I did not buy it, I made a mental note to listen to it on here. Extremely glad I did.
Woodward essentially builds off of earlier works to spell out eleven regional cultures that he argues make up the US (minus Polynesian Hawaii and Latin-Caribbean south Florida), Canada, and northern Mexico. Here's a few of them.
First Nations: Encompassing Northern Canada, Greenland, much of the Yukon and Alaska. The "First Nations" of course refers to areas where Native Americans (and their values) still are predominant.
El Norte; The first non-native regional culture to develop. Essentially a pioneer Latino psyche, born on the fringes of Mexico, and what would become the Southwestern US after 1848.
Tidewater: The region including North Carolina, some of Maryland, Virginia proper, and Delaware. Centered on the Chesapeake, this was the first region inhabited by English-speaking colonists.
Interestingly, Woodward includes the greater New York City Metro Area as it's own culture, and makes an excellent case for it. He argues that "New Netherland" is not much different from its early Dutch roots today.
Yankeedom, is essentially New England and its most direct diaspora, stretching West bordering Canada over to the easternmost counties of the Dakotas. Yankeedom also includes New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in Canada. Yankeedom was founded by the Puritans...the Pilgrims...who first set foot in the region in 1620.
Woodward argues that most political issues in US history were in fact motivated by regional differences and rivalries. While Woodward shows his own colors at the very end of the book he is very unbiased throughout the rest; hard-right Conservatives may hate the idea that their modern ideas on economic deregulation, cheap labor, and a powerful 1% is largely born of Deep South influence. Very cosmopolitan, secular, Progressives may cringe to learn that their beliefs owe a lot to the plain, very religious, paternalistic Puritans.
If you're interested in American politics this is a must-listen.
34 of 39 people found this review helpful
This is a fascinating and accessible book about the different cultural nations of northern North America. It contains very well-balanced historical information as well as accurate generalizations about modern political affairs. I really enjoyed it.
The author's thesis is that the eleven cultural nations that make up northern North America (Canada, the United States, and northern Mexico) provide a better way of understanding the history of the area and the modern challenges in political life that the countries are experiencing. Although the book is very US-centric, as a Canadian with a strong background in Canadian history I found the parts about my own country to be fairly accurate, if superficial. Not being an American, I found the US parts to be enlightening about why different states vote the way they do and why their government is set up the way it is. It is a very general way of looking at political issues, but the author does not claim that it is accurate for every person nor does he claim that his theory can explain everything. However, I believe he does a good job of supporting his thesis that looking at cultural nations is better than trying to understand history or politics on this continent by looking at political boundaries.
The most interesting part of the book was the history. I knew very little about the methods the Spanish used during their imperial period, so that section was eye-opening. Not being an American, yet having heard a lot of American historical mythology, meant that I appreciated getting a more accurate and balanced view of events such as the US Revolutionary War and the US Civil War as well. I also feel like I am going away from this book with a lot to think about and a new way of framing historical and political issues, especially in the US. Framing the political struggles in the US as culture clashes about what the one and only "American identity" is makes for an interesting hypothesis.
Although this book presents a lot of historical information, it is accessible and easy to follow. It would benefit from a PDF of a map showing where the different nations can be found because it's not easy to keep track in your head while listening, but otherwise it is something that a person without too much background in the subjects could enjoy.
The narration was good, on the whole. There were some places where the sound quality would change slightly and it was a little distracting - it almost sounded as if a new person was reading - but that is a minor complaint. On a personal level, I know that in English it's acceptable to pronounce "Quebec" "kwuh-bek", but it's much more accurate to pronounce it "kuh-bek" - even most English speakers use the latter in my part of Canada and the former makes it obvious that the narrator does not actually understand French phonetics.
Overall, I found the book very interesting and I've already recommended it to others. It's a comfortable length and it does not overreach to try to explain everything with one theory. That said, I have come to agree with the author that it does provide a better explanation for a lot of "big questions", like, "Why is Canada different from the United States?" "Why are some US states 'swing states' and some are not?" "Why do poor people in red states still often support politicians and policies that appear counter to their interests?" etc. For that reason, I found it thought-provoking and fascinating to listen to.
16 of 19 people found this review helpful
What would have made American Nations better?
The book appeared to be well researched and was compelling until the end. The final section was a rant against white America, Christians, and traditional values and how this was ruining our ability to have a cohesive nation. The summation boiled down to if only we could only be more like Canada, Native Americans, or the French, we'd be better off. The book was much better when the author stuck to reporting facts and not opinion. Instead of letting the reader make decisions based on the presented facts, the book became a socialist diatribe.
What was the most interesting aspect of this story? The least interesting?
The lesser known history and influences based on regions and cultures in the continents evolution were extremely interesting. This was a basis to rethink events in out history and how they played out. I did feel the author repeated certain facts too much. Perhaps this was for emphasis, but it droned on at time.
What did you like about the performance? What did you dislike?
The performance was good overall. I had read reviews critical of the attempts at accents and dialects. I see the validity of this criticism but overall thought is was not that distracting and added to the narrative.
You didn’t love this book... but did it have any redeeming qualities?
My only issue was when the author converted to opinion. My thought is, if you are aligned with his politics, you will like it, otherwise, probably not. I fold the arguments be be a bit shallow and off base.
Any additional comments?
Definitely worth the read. It has made me look at some our historical evolution in a different light.
11 of 13 people found this review helpful
Any additional comments?
The narrator as a soothing voice that made me want to sleep. I wish I had gotten the paper version. The content is very interesting but as an audible it put me to sleep.
9 of 11 people found this review helpful
This is a small work that packs a great deal of history. As one on the outside looking in, I never could understand why the U.S. government is so dysfunctional. Now I know. President Obama was right when he said, “We are not a red state and a blue state”, but wrong when he said, “we are the united states of America”. According to this author, the U.S. is made up of a number of “nations” so diametrically opposed to each other that they just can’t find a way to get along. Being of Scottish, Irish and French descent, I’ve always known that my Scots/Irish ancestors were a wild bunch, but, heavens to betsy, they sure have made a mess throughout history in the U.S. Between ethnic tensions, religion, racial discrimination and greed, it’s hard to see how U.S. citizens can untangle themselves from the knotted skein that is throttling them.
I listened to this book almost non-stop and was very sorry when it came to an end. The narrator could have read a little slower as there was so much I wanted to savor. I will listen to it again very soon.
5 of 6 people found this review helpful
I am always hesitant about historical perspectives that attempt to fit people and the times they lived in into neat boxes. Whether you are classifying people by their religious beliefs, their ethnic background or their purpose at the time, there are always people and times that don't fit neatly into the box. When you label an historical event or time period as a "class struggle", a "religious conflict" or a "race war", your label may encompass 80% of the problems and issues, but it ignores entirely the other 20% of what was going on at the time. And sometimes that other 20% is the critical piece that explains the whole. Not every early immigrant came to the new world seeking religious freedom. The American Civil War wasn't just about slavery.
This book attempts to categorize the people that settled the United States and the regions they settled into eleven neat boxes that explain why the country acts and reacts the way it does on social, moral, political and traditional issues. If a person lives in a certain section of the country, we should be able to infer from that how they feel and react to all of the major issues of the day. Based on this premise, I should dislike this book.
And yet I didn't. I found it informative and fascinating. It shed light on our historical response to several issues that I have never understood. And it clearly expressed thoughts I have always struggled with expressing myself. I didn't finish the book thinking that I agreed 100% with everything in it. But I did finish it thinking it expanded my understanding, clarified some muddy thoughts and reinforced some long-held beliefs. It is such a large book that presents so many large ideas that it can't be explained or defined in a short review.
My primary takeaways were:
While the people who inhabit a region do mold and affect the character, belief system and structure of a region, conversely the region molds and affects the character and belief system of the people who inhabit a region. When individuals or groups of people migrate from one region to another, they tend to adapt to the region, more than the region adapts to them.
State borders are as artificial and unimportant in the big scheme of things, as I have long thought they were. Trying to understand why two states with a long contiguous border react so differently to political and religious issues is futile. But if you pull back and look at the larger regions each state inhabits, their actions make much more sense.
There are cities and counties that seem to react completely differently than the areas surrounding them. These are often "border" areas, where multiple regions intersect and struggle. These areas seem to be the big "unknowns" in many of the critical points of our history.
It is evidently going to take more than 400 years for the personalities, belief systems, priorities and thought processes of our original founders to work through our systems and no longer affect us. We still react to many issues and problems the way our fore bearers who first settled this nation did. While some of these inherited beliefs and responses still serve us well, others have far outlived their usefulness and now cause more harm than good.
I don't know if I agree with the author's premise that at some point in the next 150 years or so, some or all of these regions may break away from the three countries that currently compose North America. But after reading this book, I am far less skeptical about this than I was before I read it. And I am no longer certain that would necessarily be a bad thing.
7 of 9 people found this review helpful