Sunday, September 29, 2013

Place in Time (Part IV)

The following post is part of a series on the role of regionalism in American history. Preceding posts are below.

Because they’ve never been formally codified the way the boundaries of an American state like Wyoming or Alabama has, their number, size and shape have been contested. Some observers have made distinctions, for example, between the Tidewater south (the lowlands along the coast) and the Piedmont south (the hillier land leading to the Appalachian mountains), or distinguished between the West (an area that spans from about Colorado to California) and the Pacific Rim (a narrow strip along the coast that encompasses San Diego and Seattle). These regions or sections are not respecter of state or even national boundaries – Canadian Vancouver in many ways has more in common with coastal Portland than it does the province of British Columbia to which it belongs. Nor is demography isn’t the only misleading thing about our state boundaries. Many of us associate Colorado with the Rocky Mountains, for the very good reason that they are indeed a dominant feature of its landscape. But eastern Colorado is as flat as Kansas. So is eastern Montana. Texas has arid plains, a tropical coast, and blazing desert.

We all understand that lots of different kinds of people – different races, different sexual orientations, different classes, different politics – live in these places, and that in the United States it’s relatively easy to move between them temporarily or permanently. But we also know that there are relatively stable traits associated with them: accents, cuisine, and local celebrations. And that they tend to vote alike in elections. New England, for example, has pledged its allegiance to different political parties over the course of the last two centuries. But it almost always votes as a bloc. So does the Deep South. There are places that vary in their allegiance – these days, we call them swing counties or states. But as we’ll see, that’s because they’re places where regional cultures overlap (and cross borders). So it is, for example, that southern Ohio has more in common with Indiana than it does the rest of Ohio.

As I think we all understand, geography is a major factor in shaping the behavior of people living in the United States. Living in a place that doesn’t have a lot of water, for example, reduces population density, which means the people who live in such are place are going to be spread out and tend to believe in value, even necessity, of self-sufficiency in their everyday lives. On the other hand, different groups of people can impose their values on any given landscape, which can often support more than one lifestyle. The Eastern Woodlands of North America worked pretty well for the Algonquin peoples who inhabited them for centuries, as it has for their Euro successors. Yes, those Euros altered those woodlands, rather dramatically, but did the Algonquins. (Actually, much of the region has more trees now than it did in the nineteenth century, when large tracts of which were cleared for farming – Indians would recognize at least part of the region more easily today than they did 150 years ago.) Human beings, for better and worse, are always colonizing land in one way or another within limits that nature sometimes imposes in gradual or spectacular ways. But whatever the cause and effect, like-minded people tend to live together, reinforcing habits and folkways, even in highly mobile societies. Sometimes this seems to transcend geography – American cities, however far apart they may be, often have more in common with each other than the countryside around them. But regional accents never disappear entirely.

One of the people who realized all of this most acutely was our friend Frederick Jackson Turner. As I mentioned, Turner became vastly influential for a theory that emphasized the primacy of the West in American history, depicting it the frontier a process of that seemed to transcend place in favor of a process of democratization and development. But toward the end of his life Turner began paying attention to what he called the sectional dimension of American history, and the way the persistent traits of older sections of the national state affected the development of newer ones. Turner understood that even in his time, the forces of modernization seemed more important than older regional patterns. Still, he said, “Improvements in communication, such as the automobile, the telephone, the radio, and movie pictures have diminished localism rather than sectionalism.”

Next: Surveying the regions of North America