Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Continental drift

In The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri renders another rich family saga spanning two worlds

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network

Jhumpa Lahiri is the patron saint -- or perhaps I should say goddess -- of the Indian-American Dream. Other writers, notably Mohsin Hamid, have explored the myth of upward mobility as experienced on the Asian subcontinent as well as in North America in prose that swings scintillatingly between fable and novelistic detail. But no one has done it with the consistency -- and the abiding affection for America -- that Lahiri has. This is surely one reason her books have been so popular here; her latest, The Lowlands, is currently ensconced on the New York Times bestseller list. Lahiri is widely considered a master of the short story, as showcased in her Pulitzer-Prize winning debut, Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and Unaccustomed Earth (2008). Her first (and only previous) novel, The Namesake (2004), was made into a well-received film directed by Mira Nair. Reviews of The Lowlands have not been as good, but it's still a worthwhile read.

The Lowlands is narrated from multiple points of view, but its pivotal figure is Subhash Mitra, the eldest of two brothers born at the dawn of Indian independence in the suburbs of Calcutta. Fifteen months apart, the boys are extremely close, and the description of their childhoods in the lingering shadow of postcolonialism is rendered movingly and economically. Alas, they grow apart: Subhash's brother Udayan is drawn into radical politics, to the alarm of their parents, while Subhash directs his ambitions toward the United States, where he migrates for graduate work in science at the University of Rhode Island. When Udayan's life choices end in disaster, Subhash takes responsibility for his widow, Guari, who is pregnant with a daughter, Bela, who become the two other major voices in the story.

Lahiri makes the striking choice of rendering so much of the story from the point of view of these women, because Gauri in particular is an unsympathetic character, and the motive for her behavior, insofar as it's ever really clear, is narrated in periodic flashbacks, emerging only gradually. This doesn't become a problem until Bela reaches adulthood -- her actions curiously echo, in paler form, those of her parents -- when the narrative energy of the story seems to go slack. It picks up again at the end, when there is a memorable encounter between mother and daughter, and in a coda in which Udayan gets to say his piece.

The Lowlands does not rank among Lahiri's best work. But there are few novelists on the contemporary scene with as strong a sense of place, or as an acute feel for the emotional trajectory of a lifetime, East or West. Lahiri is well on her way to building a body of work that make her among the most important writers in the world in the twenty-first century.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Worldly lessons

In The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, journalist Amanda Ripley offers a message of hope rooted in experience

The following review has been posted on the Books page at the History News Network

History is not destiny: this is the message of journalist Amanda Ripley in her foray into secondary education. We all know that the United States has been struggling comparatively in international rankings of academic performance as measured by standardized tests -- and has been for some time. Most of us are also aware that the reigning educational superpowers are Finland and South Korea. We tend to assume the reasons for a nation's place in the academic world are relatively static: material prosperity, cultural values, ethnic homogeneity (or lack thereof). But, Ripley argues, global performance has in fact been quite fluid. South Korea and Finland were educational backwaters until relatively recently -- as was Poland until even more recently. But, showing more confidence in the efficacy of government than Americans have been able to do, each of these nations has taken proactive steps that have made a difference (even as other nations, among them Italy and Norway, have slipped, for some of the same reasons the U.S. has lagged).

Ripley rests her case on two foundations. The first is empirical: her standard of measurement is the Program for International Assessment Exam (PISA), a standardized test developed at the turn of this century by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an NGO based in Paris. Though PISA is subject to the same skepticism and limits of many standardized tests, it is more analytical and real-world based than most, particularly those administered in the United States. But the bulk of Ripley's analysis is anecdotal: she follows three American students as they journey to rural Finland, urban South Korea, and western Poland, contextualizing accounts of their experiences with thick descriptions of the political, social, and cultural milieu in each.

As one might expect, the portraits that emerge from each of these places is starkly different. South Korean students are subject to a brutal academic grind in which most of their learning takes place under the auspices of private tutors who drill their charges late into the evening. (The government actually launches police raids to enforce a recently implemented curfew on study.) Polish students learn amid the shadows of the Nazi and Soviet past, which linger in ugly buildings and material deprivation. Finnish students, by contrast, learn under much sunnier conditions -- but that's a decidedly metaphorical statement (the American student there, who hails from Oklahoma, struggles with depression, some of which stems from the cold, dark climate). Residents of these countries find things to complain about -- perhaps a source of solace for anxious Americans -- but all have seen demonstrable success in their striving, not simply in the realm of test scores, but also in their economic fortunes.

Most important for Ripley is that for all their differences, these countries are alike in one important particular: "everyone -- kids, parents, and teachers -- [sees] getting an education as a serious quest, more important than sports or self-esteem." (Ripley's "The Case Against High School Sports" is the cover story in the current issue of the Atlantic.) American education reformers, she says, think they can improve education by improving teacher quality. But they get the equation wrong: rather than help teachers get better, they should focus on getting better teachers in the first place, and the way to do that is to make teaching a prestigious profession in which only the most qualified candidates may get in the classroom. She illustrates the point that it's all too easy to become a teacher in the United States with a story of a man who wants to become a football coach and so trains to become a math teacher. And she devotes a chapter to a Korean tutor who earns $4 million annually -- enough to beguile a college student out of a career in investment banking.

Along the way, Ripley challenges a series of conventional wisdoms. Yes, money matters, but students from rich countries often do poorly, and while those from poor countries often do well. (Poland has about the same child poverty rate as the United States.) Yes, parental involvement counts, but only the right kind -- the evidence suggests that boosterism and brownie-baking actually hurts student performance, while reading to your children is a telling indicator of future success. Yes, children need encouragement and support -- roughly half of Finnish children receive some form of special education at some point in their careers -- but lowering expectations and tracking students does more harm than good. Yes, racial and ethnic diversity is a complication, but Finnish immigrants do at least as well as natives do. (This point is among the least convincing, given the relatively small proportion of Finnish immigrants, and the growing anxiety among natives about schooling their children with them.)

This is a fast, provocative read. And the book's message is optimistic -- really: we can improve. And yet as the government shutdown of 2013 makes clear, American society is suffering from a paralysis of will in the ability of the government to take decisive action in the realm of social welfare. Maybe there will come a day when the work of reform will begin again. If and when it does, Ripley's work may point the way toward progress.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Ulysses's Sister

In Someone, Alice McDermott (once again) resurrects the soul of the Irish diaspora

The following review has been posted on the Books page at the History News Network.

Not much happens in Alice McDermott's fiction. We usually have a woman -- her age narrated fluidly, though not chronologically, à la Toni Morrison -- at weddings, wakes, and conversing at Sunday afternoon tables with coffee and danish. Character unspools slowly, its outlines often unfamiliar to the narrator herself, whether because circumstances are murky, insight is limited, or both. But as a social historian, McDermott's prose is astonishing in its clarity, capturing working-class New York with the cinematic clarity of John Patrick Shanley or Martin Scorsese. Take this opening passage from McDermott's new novel, Someone:

Pegeen Chebab walked up from the subway in the evening light. Her good spring coat was powder blue; her shoes were black and covered the insteps of her long feet. Her hat was beige with something dark along the crown, a brown feather or two. There was a certain asymmetry to her shoulders. She had a loping, hunchbacked walk. She had, always, a bit of black hair along her cheek, straggling to her shoulder, her bun coming undone.

Poor Pegeen. The product of what used to be called a mixed marriage, in this case an Irish woman with a Lebanese man, she will not be long for this world, her dishevelment a foreshadows a coming fall. Here as in so all McDermott novels, death hovers, an inescapable, and sometimes longed for, presence.

For over a quarter of a century now, McDermott has staked out her turf as the chronicler of the New York Irish in the twentieth century. Her books circle obsessively around the children and grandchildren of the children of Eire as they disperse across the five boroughs and (especially) Long Island, dreams of upward mobility incrementally carrying them on tides of affluence even as their memories and their Catholicism holds them fast. This sense of place crystallizes in the language, clothing, foodways, and interior decorations of these people -- from the aspiring lace-curtain Irish to their shanty skeptics -- and achieves its apotheosis in mid-century, gradually disintegrating as their suburban children assimilate, move away, and regard their begetters as incomprehensible if not laughable. This is a world I happen to know well, and reading a McDermott novel always seems to conjure up childhood memories I barely realized I had.

Someone tells the story of Marie Commeford, a thoroughly ordinary woman born who is born in Brooklyn in the 1920s and comes of age during World War II, when she works as a kind of professional mourner at a local funeral parlor. She marries a veteran and spends the remainder of the American Century in Queens, the mother of four. Marie has poor eyesight, but her sensory acuity (particularly in her sense of smell, a McDermott specialty) is extraordinary.

In an important sense however, Someone is a sibling story, focusing on the relationship Marie has with her older brother, Gabe, the apple of his parents' eyes who enters -- but soon leaves -- the priesthood. Nowadays, we're almost surprised to encounter a priest who is not obviously or likely gay, but in Marie's day such realities were unspeakable. Yet McDermott shows the attitudes of the working-class Irish were perhaps not quite as benighted as is sometimes supposed. To call them homophobic is not only anachronistic but incomplete. Fear, compassion and brutality mingle, expressed through a language of gesture more often spoken with hands than words.

In a funny way, McDermott's fiction is a bit like that of Alan Furst, he of the noirish spy novels set in Europe in the early years of World War II. Both writers are saturated in atmosphere, and their books tend to run together in your memory after you've read them. Yet both are extraordinary at evoking a particular time and place in ways that historians can only envy. In decades come, such writers will be be among the most important in helping us understand what it was really like to be alive in those middle decades of the twentieth century.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Man kind

In Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan illustrates the limits of scripture (and the limits of limits)

The following review has been posted on the Books page at the History News Network.

I'm one of those people who was prompted to read this book after I saw, live, the author's interview on FOX News where his interlocutor insinuated that Aslan, as a Muslim, had ulterior motives in writing about Christianity other than that of a historian. (The anti-intellectual subtext was as strong as the implied invitation to religious bigotry). The exchange, which went viral, launched Zealot onto the New York Times bestseller list, something unlikely to have happened without out it, notwithstanding Aslan's previous well regarded book on Islam, No God but God. So it is that FOX demonstrates its perverse market power.

In terms of the book's argument, Zealot rests on a syllogism that goes something like this:

  1. Jesus of Nazareth was born into a time and place of extraordinary political instability stemming from the seething religious and social tensions in Jewish Palestine.
  2. After the death of Jesus, these tensions, which had periodically erupted into insurrection under Roman rule, finally provoked an overwhelming military response in 70 CE that discredited militant Judaism in the eyes of followers and outsiders alike.
  3. Jesus therefore had to be sanded down for mass consumption, his sharp political edges softened as part of a larger process of transforming him from a Jewish messiah to a universal savior.
As Aslan acknowledges, calling Jesus a Zealot (capital Z) is anachronistic, a little like titling a biography of Abigail Adams Feminist. The Zealots as a discrete political faction only arose after the death of Jesus, and while there were people with that designation in his lifetime (lower-case z), he was not commonly associated with them. Aslan, however, feels that there's enough evidence of militancy in the gospels to suggest his affinity for them.

Perhaps the most concise statement of Aslan's argument comes when he reinterprets Jesus's famous injunction in the Gospel of Matthew to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's," which is generally regarded as a statement of accommodation to secular rule while keeping one's eye focused on the spiritual realm. Instead, Azlan's preferred translation -- "Give back to Caesar the property that belongs to Caesar, and give back to God the property that belongs to God" -- is actually a demand that the Romans return to the kingdom of Israel to the Jews. For Aslan, the "milquetoast" misreading of scripture "perfectly accommodates the perception of Jesus as a detached, celestial spirit wholly unconcerned with material matters, a curious assertion about a man who not only lived in one of the most politically charged periods in Israel's history, but who claimed to be the promised messiah sent to liberate the Jews from Roman occupation."

Aslan believes the detachment of Jesus from his immediate political context was greatly facilitated by the apostle Paul, who, despite never knowing Jesus personally, managed to wrest control of the movement away from those (notably Jesus's brother, James) who did, and who tried to keep the Judaic dimension of his life central. It was Paul who made Jesus of Nazareth Jesus Christ, Hellenizing him for a broader (and often more educated) audience. Aslan, however, clearly prefers Jesus the man, who he concludes is "every bit as compelling, charismatic and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in."

This of course is not a new argument. (In an American context, I call this the Woody Guthrie school of Christianity -- Jesus as proto-communist.) But every bit as compelling? For a secular imagination, maybe. As Aslan recognizes, the miracles of Jesus are things that must be accommodated historically not because they're factual, but because they were so widely believed -- and so widely believed so early -- that they must be taken into account. For some, a Jesus stripped of spiritual dimensions may be sufficient. I don't really know how to explain to such a person why it isn't for believers in the resurrection except perhaps to suggest that such an argument would be like telling a gay person that sexual feelings are acceptable as long as you don't regard them as important.

But if Aslan isn't going to change many minds, he does provide a wealth of information in a surprisingly compact volume. The writing is limpid and is marked by a complex narrative structure (at one point I got confused about why he was telling us so much about what happened in Israel and Judah after Christ's death, but it does comport with his larger argument). His doctorate is in the sociology of religions, and he teaches creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, facts which suggest he's more of a popularizer than biblical scholar. Still, the book's utility is likely to be greater than its limits. Bless him for his labors.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Measured prose

In Nine Inches, Tom Perrotta returns to familiar terrain (amid fading light)

The following review has been posted on the Books page at the History News Network.

This summer I taught a class of largely minority students facing varying degrees of academic challenges. Seeking to give them a diet of adolescent-friendly fare for discussion and writing, I turned to figures like Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco and the Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz, to whom I was confident they could relate. Although I was less confident about it, I also decided to use Tom Perrotta's 1994 debut collection of short stories, Bad Haircut, which traces the life of a 1970s adolescent named Buddy from middle school through his high school graduation. (The juxtaposition with Diaz, another New Jersey chronicler of the suburbs whose fiction also includes subjects like coming to terms with the homosexuality of friends, proved to be quite arresting.) I'm happy to say my students loved Bad Haircut.

Having followed Perrotta through a half-dozen subsequent novels -- among them the bestselling Little Children (which was made into a movie) and The Leftovers (soon to be an HBO series) -- I was pleased to learn that his new book, Nine Inches, would be his second story collection. Unlike Bad Haircut, which followed a single character, these stories, many set in the fictional town of Gifford, (presumably not far from the imaginary Cranwood of Bad Haircut), depict a range of people, from high school students to senior citizens, policemen to doctors, solid citizens to small-time criminals. It's inevitable, then, that this collection would not have quite have the narrative cohesion of the first one.

Thematically, however, Nine Inches is surprisingly tight -- and surprisingly grim. Perrotta has been called "an American Chekov" and "the Steinbeck of suburbia," but the mood of this book is closer to the early James Joyce of The Dubliners, where protagonists have negative epiphanies in which they confront limitations they'd managed to avoid recognizing they have. Those limitations include character defects, like the math teacher of "Grade My Teacher," who, in disclosing more than she should to a student, hesitates "long enough to realize she was making a mistake, then kept going" (and going). They also include recognizing dreams that will never be fulfilled, like those of the regretful, abusive father of "The Smile on Happy Chang's Face"or the amateur blues guitarists of "One-Four-Five," who know they can never compensate for the families they have lost.

This sense of despair infects even 21st century Perrotta adolescents, of whom he writes with same assured air that he does of nineties kids in Election or seventies teens in Bad Haircut (he acknowledges his late-adolescent children as the source of anecdotes that "blossomed into stories"). Perrotta was far too satirical -- and far too realistic -- to ever suggest that the intensity of Tracy Flick in Election or the passivity of Dave Raymond in The Wishbones would ever be transformed much later in their lives. Still, you could have a sense of hope for them that's harder to feel for the concussion-stricken football player of "Senior Season" or the cynical protagonist of "The Test Taker," who impersonates his fellow students on the SATs. "I honestly didn't mind cheating for strangers," he explains. "If somebody wanted to pay me to help them get into a good college, I didn't see anything wrong with that. It wasn't all that different from hiring an expensive tutor, or getting a doctor diagnose a learning disability so you could buy yourself some extra time. That was just the way the system worked." He gets his comeuppance (and strikes back in ways that may make you feel complicit in your satisfaction), just as the retired narrator of "Kiddie Pool" is repaid for trespassing in his neighbor's garage with an unwelcome discovery.

To at least some extent, the downbeat mood of Nine Inches is offset by the sheer narrative invention in some of these stories. Donald, the narrator of "Backrub," who somehow managed to not to get into one of the twelve colleges to which he applied, finds himself stopped repeatedly by a policeman, who makes an unexpected demand (to which the Donald responds in an unexpected way before making an unexpected revelation). "The Smile on Happy Chang's Face" is a particularly intricate story, weaving a father's confession and adult psychodrama through an exciting rendition of a Little League championship game. The title story, which refers to the distance eighth graders must maintain at a middle school dance, is marked by a notably graceful contrapuntal style of storytelling that is Perrotta's trademark.

Perrotta's last book, The Leftovers, was very clearly an attempt to break new creative ground by venturing into the world of science fiction -- and bending the genre in a distinctly literary direction. In that light, it's possible to see Nine Inches as a retreat onto more familiar terrain. But for my money this is a more satisfying book, because it showcases a writer on his home turf, working within a familiar framework with uncommon power.

Though he ends the book on a lighter note with a redemptive story of second chances, I'm nevertheless saddened by the receding sense of possibility that seems to mark Perrotta's vision. Or maybe like the characters of these stories, I too am belatedly waking up to the reality he's been describing all along. The historical context for Nine Inches is worth noting: demographers are telling us that the suburbs are less attractive than they used to be for young people, who are returning to cities in numbers that have not been seen in close to a century. (One of the more memorable stories of Bad Haircut was "You Learn to Live," about the great adolescent ritual of learning to drive, which teenagers are doing less frequently now.)

I find the angst here a little curious because at least superficially, it would seem that Perrotta, himself a product of New Jersey, ripened artistically on a suburban vine. Of course it would be stupid to suggest hypocrisy -- as an artist, he has to call 'em as he sees 'em, and it's likely that a Perrotta story set in a high-rise or on a farm would also be marked by negative epiphanies.  As someone who has also staked his ground in the suburbs, I can't help but hope that a future filing from the village will be more promising. But maybe that's another way I'm like the people of those stories, waiting for my train to come in.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Place in Time (VI--final)

This is the final installment of a series of posts on regionalism in U.S. history. (Previous posts below.)

What does all this talk of regional identity  mean for you? That of course depends at least a bit on who “you” are, i.e. where you’re coming from in some literal or figurative way. (I, for my part, am the grandson of an Italian immigrant whose extended family, much of it Irish, is almost exclusively Mid-Atlantic by birth. But by marriage, education, and temperament, I am decidedly a Yankee in cultural affiliation.) Insofar as these regional themes I’m talking about have any reality, they include plenty of exceptions. You can find Chinese food in Tulsa (maybe not good Chinese food), and hear good bluegrass music in Manhattan (maybe not real bluegrass). Even overwhelmingly Republican Texas has Democratic pockets – which may soon become more than pockets as the racial complexion of the state changes. There are plenty of reasons, and ways, the nation-state will hold. Like our motto says, e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”).

On the other hand, there’s no reason to think the borders of the United States will remain permanent. Considered solely as a matter of topography, there’s nothing particularly cohesive about a stretch of continent that’s marked by large stretches of forest, plains, desert, and mountains, and which over the course of the last few thousand years has been the home of a wide variety of peoples who interacted with each other was well as lived in relative isolation. And many of our state boundaries – consider the rectangles that constitute the Dakotas, for example – are really matters of fictive convenience. Should the pressures, internal or external, become great enough, different pieces of the nation could break off or recombine in ways that are hard to foresee, but not exactly random, either.

Does that thought sadden you? At times it saddens me, though I’ll confess I find myself exasperated enough with the kinds of things I hear or see coming out of South Carolina and find myself thinking our lives would be a lot easier if we went our separate ways. I get annoyed at the way Idahoans complain about the intrusiveness of the federal government, even as they depend on it for the roads, jobs, and markets that keep it afloat. In recent years I’ve heard secessionist noise coming out of Texas, to which I feel inclined to say, “erring sisters, go in peace,” especially since I regard the circumstances by which Texas entered the Union to be highly dubious. On the other hand, I’m not sure any of the rest of the nation was much, if any, less so as a matter of moral legitimacy.

The real point of this particular conversation is less about making predictions or arguing for the value of one part of the country over the other than it is asking you to consider what you consider important about your national identity. What do you think it means to be an American? Is it a landscape, a set of habits, or a series of ideas? Are the things you value rooted more in one part of the continent than another? How bad would you feel if some part of it were to break off? And lastly, and more importantly: where – and how – do you want to live? If you’re lucky, you may have some choice in the matter. Try and exercise it wisely.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Place in Time (Part V)

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

In recent decades, some scholars have been paying attention to regionalism again. The actual number they name ranges from as few as four to as many as eleven, but a few regions, and a few dynamics, are always apparent. Take New England, which always features prominently in these accounts. Most of the Puritan and Pilgrim settlers of the region hailed from the same part of (southeastern) England. This part of English North America was distinctive in any number of ways, among them the migration of whole families, their relative lack of racial and ethnic diversity and, especially, their dedication to their (dissident) religion. New Englanders were the most communitarian people on the eastern seaboard, and the most committed to their belief that people could govern themselves in the name of a greater good – which also meant they were more inclined to regulate the behavior of themselves and others. New Englanders were an expansive people; settlers to that part of the world pushed westward and occupied a series of future states across the continent, from Ohio to California. To this day, the people of this northern tier tend to share many attitudes, and evince a moralistic streak in their politics.

On the other side of the seaboard was the South – first Virginia, more specifically the Tidewater, in a culture that spread west and south to the Carolinas. (Some observers distinguish between Virginia and the Deep South, with the latter having more of a Caribbean orientation. Like New England, this region was marked by a shared religion, but it was the mainstream Church of England, about which settlers were generally less serious than their Northern counterparts. Here too the settlers tended to come from the same part of England (this time the southern and western coasts), but there was more racial diversity because the region relied much more on slavery than New England ever did. Both southerners and New Englanders prized their freedom, a goal that played an important role in their migration. But the former tended to think about it in positive terms – freedom to, as in freedom to worship as they pleased (with more of an emphasis on the collective pronoun). The latter tended to think about freedom in negative terms – freedom from, which among other things meant not having to conform to rules of the kind New Englanders were apt to make. Many New Englanders came to see slavery as the opposite of freedom, and took active steps to end it; many Southerners came to view slavery as the very essence of what freedom was: the right to acquire property, including human property, without interference.

In between these people – actually, more like behind these people, in terms of when they came, where they settled, and their relative status in American life – is a regional segment known by a variety of names, among them the Scotch-Irish, Borderlanders, or Appalachians, each of which that provides some indication of their identities. These people tended to come from the northern periphery of Great Britain and Ireland, but these Irish were Protestant (mostly Presbyterian) colonists from England’s conquests of Ireland during the age of Queen Elizabeth. They were, on the whole, poorer than other British migrants, one reason they tended to settle on the western periphery of the colonies, in hilly or mountainous terrain. They were also fiercely clannish in their family organization, devoted to their religion (especially the Baptist and Methodist sects that flowered in the early 19th century) and hostile to outsiders. Depending on the circumstances, this hostility was focused on Yankee-minded social reformers, who they regarded as control freaks, or Southern aristocrats, who they regarded as tyrants. Borderlands people, who became a large presence in a series of states from Pennsylvania to Texas, never managed to politically dominate any one of them for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though they formed a powerful presence in national politics. (They put Andrew Jackson in the White House much to the horror of old-line Yankees and Tidewater aristocrats.) They split during the Civil War, some joining the Confederacy, others choosing to secede from the secessionists, as West Virginia did in breaking from Virginia in 1863. But these days such people tend to cast their lots with Southern bloc, whether they happen to live in northern Georgia, eastern Tennessee or most of Oklahoma.

The other major piece of the puzzle between New England and the South is the region that includes New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, known collectively as the Mid-Atlantic region. Sometimes this is parsed as New York/northern Jersey and Pennsylvania/southern Jersey, with Delaware as an annex to Pennsylvania, reflecting the fact that metropolitan New York (originally New Amsterdam) was originally Dutch and Pennsylvania was English. The key point for our purposes is that this whole stretch of territory has always been highly diverse in just about every way we’ve been talking about – religious, racial, ethnic and political. When the English seized New Amsterdam without a shot in 1664 they kept its basic institutions intact, which is to say they respected its diversity Pennsylvania began as a haven for the far-out religious English Quakers, but the colony was quickly overrun with borderland settlers and immigrants from Central Europe. Pluralistic, commercial, and with a strong pacifist streak in Quaker Pennsylvania in particular that translated to skepticism about any kind of crusade, a Midlander ethos spread west from central Ohio into southeastern Colorado. Many of the states where such people are dominant, among them Missouri, are fiercely contested by their state political parties and are often up for grabs during presidential elections.

As is its wont, North American regionalism spills beyond U.S. national borders. The cultural remnants of New France are alive and well in Quebec, which features a French-speaking majority and a cultural sensibility at marked contrast with the rest of Canada (whose maritime provinces, like Nova Scotia, have a strong Yankee accent). The southwestern states of the United States – among them California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas – retain strong elements of their Spanish and Mexican heritage. Indeed, some observers believe the residents of “El Norte” on either side of the Rio Grande have more in common with each other than their respective national citizenship; in this regard the fence the U.S. has been building is more like a Berlin Wall dividing a country rather wall dividing two nations.

I realize it’s possible to make too much of all of this. Besides, some of the nationalizing forces I’ve already mentioned, like the mass media, there are factors at work in U.S. life that are shaping the nation’s life and future at least as much as regionalism is. Immigration, for instance. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that the center of gravity for immigration has generally been centered in the Mid-Atlantic and its Borderland successors extending into the Midwest. There are two important exceptions to this rule. The first is New England, which first lost its ethnic uniformity almost 200 years ago when the Irish started swarming in, followed by Italians, Jews, and now Asians and Latinos. But New England has also shown a tremendous capacity for assimilating new arrivals to their ways, not so much in terms of things like language or expression as much as a belief in personal and collective self-improvement, something immigrants are likely to believe in anyway as a factor in their original decision to migrate.

The other exception is El Norte, where Latinos are becoming an ever-greater proportion of the population (Mexicans today are about the same proportion of the population that the Irish were in the late 19th century.) But this is less a new development than a reversion to the ethnic mean. Latino immigrants like to say that they didn’t cross the border; the border crossed them. Now it’s crossing back. What may be a more advanced stage of this process is underway in the northern Canadian province of Nunavut, where indigenous peoples broke away from the province of the Northwest Territories and are reasserting their control over the land for the first time in 500 years.

Next: Concluding remarks