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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.
89 of 92 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.
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.
66 of 74 people found this review helpful