Not one but many: The American Nations

As a person who grew up on the border between the Midlands and Appalachia to essentially Yankee parents, who lived for a while in Tidewater and in El Norte (the US Southwest) and who now lives in Yankeedom, Woodward’s book makes sense of things I’ve noticed but couldn’t explain.

A few months ago a book by Colin Woodward called “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” (on Amazon here) lit up my Facebook and Twitter feeds with many of my friends sharing an analysis of the culture wars in America that could be rationalized by the authors thesis.

The short version is that the “northern” cultures of the US (Yankeedom, New Amsterdam, Midlands and the Left Coast) are locked in a fundamental disagreement with the Dixie cultures (Deep South, Tidewater and Appalachia) over issues like the environment, gay rights, and gun control. The fractures in Washington DC and the increasing conflict that fills the talk shows are all part of a struggle for dominance in the United States that has been going on since before the Revolutionary War.

If you’re interested in current events or politics, you ought to read the book. As a person who grew up on the border between the Midlands and Appalachia to essentially Yankee parents, who lived for a while in Tidewater and in El Norte (the US Southwest) and who now lives in Yankeedom, this book makes sense of things I’ve noticed but couldn’t explain.

For instance, within the Episcopal Church, the one regional grouping of dioceses (called a Province) that is reasonably successful is Province 1 – the New England Province. And according to Woodward, Province 1 is the only Province of the Episcopal Church that I can see which is essentially a single American culture. (The states in Province 1 are all part of Yankeedom – not all of Yankeedom is in Province 1, but it’s the only mono-culture Province.) I wonder if reorganizing the Provinces by culture rather than arbitrary state divisions would make them more effective.

As I’ve been participating in the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, and meeting regularly with leaders from across the Americas (including representatives of the South Pacific culture) I’m more and more convinced that it’s critically important to remember that the Church spans multiple cultures and that what makes sense in one context doesn’t in another. That point that the context matters is something that the Anglican Communion office has been stressing, particularly as Anglicans and Episcopalians struggle to stay in relationship across significant cultural boundaries. As much as context matters in the Anglican Communion, it matters in the Episcopal Church as well.

There’s a lot to think about in the points being made in the book. If you’ve not read it, and you’re thinking about or involved in issues at a national level (whether church or state) I really think it’s worth your time to pick this one up. It’s a fast read – especially if you’re a history buff. Stick with it, the most thought provoking section, for me at least, was the final chapters in which Woodward discusses the Culture Wars of the last century.

Author: Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

8 thoughts on “Not one but many: The American Nations”

      1. OK thanks. When I saw things like East Texas being established by English slave lords from Barbados who intended it to be a slave society, I wondered! But people seem to like the book itself.

  1. Nick, what’s your (or Woodward’s) criterion for an ECUSA province being “reasonably successful”?

    The danger of realigning provinces by cultures is that it likely would contribute to the self-sorting and resulting echo-chamber public dialogue that we increasingly see with, e.g., people watching only Fox News (or MSNBC).

    Maybe ten years ago — I think it was during the American Anglican Council kerfuffle — our then-diocesan bishop, Don Wimberly, came to our parish for confirmation. During coffee hour between the services, a friend and I were amazed to see the bishop standing alone in the parish hall, just looking around, with no one seeming to be interested in him. So we walked up and introduced ourselves. In the course of the conversation, one of us remarked that the two of us were among the few “dissenting liberal troublemakers” of our increasingly-conservative parish. The bishop responded immediately that it was good we hadn’t switched parishes, because there was too much self-sorting going on already, which he thought was not a good thing.

  2. I’m mostly just reporting what I hear from others nationally in the Episcopal Church – that Province 1 has the most successful common life of all the existing provinces. I will say, as a newcomer to the region, that this Province is much more active and effective programatically and relationally than either Province 3 or 8 where I was previously.

    For what it’s worth, Woodward identifies three dominant cultures in Texas – Deep South in the East, Appalachia in the northern parts and hill country (probably contains Dallas and Fort Worth) and El Norte in the southwest.

  3. I noticed this book earlier and passed it up. Now I’m going to read it. Thanks for the suggestion, Nick.

  4. I haven’t read this book but will add it to my list. Cultural diversity can be either a positive or negative force depending on the attitudes people have toward those who are different. In a sense every parish has its own culture; what is important for us in the Episcopal Church is that we are bound together by our use of the Book of Common Prayer. How we use it differs, but we at least have it in common. And, I am glad to be in Province 1.

  5. Sorry, but I’m seeing the same presuppositions about the South and that it’s “just the way they are,” without any reference to the fact that much of the South’s history since the Civil War has been as a sort of source of Third World cheap labor for the same 1% types that are only now a problem for the North. When you have that situation, when people are trained and expected to live as the country’s trash, they’ll live down to that. There is only one divide – rich and poor – the rest and all the negative results thereof coming from that.

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