Over the past several days, I’ve written ridiculously long comments on someone else’s blog that I feel almost could have been a post in its own right. Yet, without the context I’m not sure how to turn it into one.
It started with me getting my nose out of joint, as usual, over the subject of Americans being a bunch of terrible, uncouth louts. I tried explaining why this was emotionally triggering to me. In response I got something to the effect of, “But you are a bunch of uncouth louts.” I guess. But few people grow up in “The United States.” We grow up in specific environments, particular towns. One of the reasons I started writing is because I feel like my particular point of view is not represented publicly anywhere I look. I feel invisible on several levels. Sexuality is a big one, as is my particular moderate liberal political orientation. One level where I feel invisible is the cultural environment in which I grew up. On the one hand, it was very much part of the mainstream. On another hand, it feels very underrepresented in the media. The more I write about my adolescence, the more I would like to introduce that world to other people. It certainly has its flaws, but all in all it wasn’t so bad.
I grew up in an ethnically diverse, religiously diverse, comparatively tolerant environment that, to my mind, has no less reason to be considered “American” than anyplace else in this country. Will someone tell me who gave the Deep South and Appalachia the trademark on the word American? Where I grew up may not be “typically American,” but, at the same time, it’s very American in so far as it couldn’t have been anything else. I have just as much right to this country as anyone else here, dammit.
I’m not going to excuse myself for getting emotionally involved and perseverating (Yes, WordPress, it’s a word.) over a particular topic. Artistically and intellectually it’s been a surprisingly productive trait, although my friends and family can find it tiresome and it can be emotionally draining sometimes. So rather than avoid the topic, I’ve decided to delve further into it and I’ve picked up a couple of books on the subject of regional differences in North America and the United States.
Many years ago, I read the book Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer. Although I think he overstates his case in many ways, it was eye-opening to me. For years, I always wondered why the “America” I see portrayed in the media bore so little resemblance to the world I knew. Fischer describes how the core settlements in different regions of North America, which would eventually become parts of the U.S., were originally settled by people from different areas of the British Isles, primarily England, who brought with them different regional cultures. It was eye-opening because I finally understood not simply that different areas of the country had different subcultures, but why.
As I said, I think he overstates his case in many ways. First of all, I don’t accept this entirely culturally driven model. That’s not a small area of disagreement and that requires a lengthy explanation. Hopefully, I will be able to get to it eventually. Secondly, Fischer insists, repeatedly, that these four English subcultures are the main drivers of American culture and downplays the influence of other groups. As someone from New Jersey, specifically from the region that had previously been the colony of East Jersey, I couldn’t place my own culture within his framework. Reading the book, I mentally went back and forth between his description of the culture of East Anglia (Yankees) and that of the Midlands (The City of Brotherly Love/West Jersey). Both were familiar, especially the culture of the Midlands as described by Fischer, but neither felt right.
Fischer’s book, despite it’s drawbacks, was widely influential and it’ s frequently quote. I find myself citing it frequently too.
Then a few years ago, I came across another book, The Island at the Center of the World. Perhaps it’s because I found the book in a store near Hunter College on Lexington Avenue, but looking at the title I knew immediately what island Shorto meant. Now, if you don’t know where the Center of the World is, allow me to humbly, modestly inform you that it is New York City. Shorto describes the original Dutch colony. One important aspect of the colony of New Netherlands is that, during the Dutch golden age, they had difficulty finding colonists and the original colonists came from a variety of places. New York has been multicultural from the day it was founded. Reading his book, I thought to myself, now this place is familiar.
So now I’m reading a book called American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard. He fills in some of the gaps I felt while reading Fischer’s book. I’m sure I’ll have more to say as I get further into it.