During the early 1920’s, 30 years after he had written his famous essay on the significance of the frontier in the nation’s history, the great American historian Frederick Jackson Turner published two other works on the democratizing role of what he termed the “section.” Sections, Turner wrote, “serve as restraints upon a deadly uniformity. They are breakwaters against overwhelming surges of national emotion. They are fields for experiment in the growth of different types of society, political institutions, and ideals. They constitute an impelling force for progress along the diagonal of contending varieties.”
Turner was right. The section, or more generally, the region, is the primordial wellspring of American pluralism. The country’s motto, E Pluribus Unum (“From many, one”), captures well what any map of historical geography might reveal—that ours has been a nation of regions. Provincialism and regionalism preceded any sense of nationalism in this country and, indeed, the very nationhood of the United States by more than a century. For 200 years after 1776, regionalism and sectionalism superseded artificial state boundaries and ran as a countercurrent to the modernizing and nationalizing tendencies of industrial capitalism and federal centralization. Regional cultures have thus been an essential part of the dynamic of American history, centers of resistance against the homogeneity threatened by “that all-destroying abstraction. America,” as the Southern poet Allen Tate once phrased it.
The region inspires and embodies the sense of place, of rootedness in a particular storied landscape. Regional cultures emerged out of the processes of adaptation and interaction that occurred as diverse peoples with distinctive traditions settled and developed America’s vast quiltwork of physical environments. A region might be as large as a dozen states (“the South”), with the boundaries of regional identity set by common economic interests, shared political beliefs, and racial solidarity. Or a region might be as small as a single rural community (“back home”), with an allegiance to place sealed by personal memory, family bonds, and neighborly ties. Provincialism, regionalism, and sectionalism are all respective expressions of such regional identity and allegiance, in workaday culture, in art and literature, and in polities.
Provincialism is the sum of regional culture as it is unconsciously lived and handed down from generation to generation by the folk of a particular locality. Before the modern era, provincialism was largely synonymous with folk cultures—small-scale, ethnically homogeneous communities bound together over time by oral tradition. After the onset of the modern era (roughly, since the 17th century), provincialism represented the survivals and residues of folk cultures that were able to persist against the progress wrought by commerce, industry, and state. Folklore, ritual, modes of work, architecture, clothing, dialects, and cuisine are some of the elements that comprise the unique flavor and backdrop of a regional culture as a folkish, provincial “wav of life.” The cowboy culture that arose in the West during the 19th century is a good example. It was an amalgam of still older provincial cultures (Scotch-Irish herder-ways long practiced in the Southern backcountry; vaquero skills and terms from the Mexican borderlands—ranch, lasso, chaps, rodeo) fused into an indigenous set of folkways appropriate to working large herds in the sparse Western landscape.
Regionalism arises when a provincialism like the cowboy culture becomes conservatively self-conscious, when a regionally based “way of life” (or the remnants thereof) is threatened by the forces of modernity and efforts are made to preserve it or adapt it to such changes. Regionalism has especially attracted the interest of artists and intellectuals, who idealize and mythologize a regional culture that has passed away into history and who seek to conserve if not restore these older folkways and values in the all too modern present. Regional novels, paintings, histories, and social criticism attempt to reconnect the public with the importance of values of traditionalism, communalism, expressive individualism, and symbiosis with nature. To continue our Western example, the obsolescence of the open-range Cattle Kingdom by the early 20th century ended the heroic age of the giant cattle drives—the cowboys’ heyday—but that age and culture were subsequently enshrined by the paintings of Russell and Remington, by the fiction of Louis L’Amour, and by institutions such as the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center. Beyond these largely “local color” efforts, regionalism in the 19th and 20th centuries could also become a species of cultural radicalism, directing hallowed folk-regional values as an explicit critique of a decadent, materialistic regional present (the writings of Bernard De Voto and Edward Abbey, for example).
Sectionalism, in contrast, is a provincialism that is self-aware and uncritical of itself, in fact, truculently celebratory and combative. Regionalism is defined by a demand for toleration and inclusiveness of all regions within a greater national unity. Sectionalism seeks to protect the interests of a self-defined regional community against the encroachments of other regions, the power of national corporations and organizations, or the excesses of the central government. Sectional defenders lambaste the evils and vices of outsiders in an effort to rally public opinion and secure unity at home; and for these same reasons, they sing the praises of the home region unapologetically. Sectionalism might not only resist cultural change—portrayed as threats from outside the region—but also any regionally unfavorable maldistribution of wealth, resources, or political power. Again the West provides a telling illustration, from recent history: aggrieved ranchers battling the federal government and national environmental groups in a campaign to preserve their livelihood and “way of life” (the remnants of cowboy culture) from access restrictions and high range-fees.
In general, both regionalist and sectional spokesmen have asserted the importance of local, indigenous cultural autonomy over and against the domination of cultural expression and production by a “cultural capital.” Early in the nation’s history, artists and intellectuals sought to declare cultural independence from Britain and Europe; cultural regionalism was one with cultural nationalism. But as the country matured during the 19th century, great cities such as Boston and New York became preeminent in artistic and publishing circles. Regional and sectional resentments thereafter focused on the “North” or the “East” for failing to reflect the tastes and values of the South, Midwest, Southwest, and Far West. Particularly by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these issues of cultural domination came to be entangled with the issues of domestic economic and political “colonialism,” the subservience of the underdeveloped South and West (the periphery) to the advanced industrial economy of the Northeast (the core). Thus was the national fabric fissured along regional lines. America, it appeared, was a “union of potential nations,” in the words of Frederick Jackson Turner, and like any nation each sought advantage over the others in their economic and political relations.
This regional differentiation of America long antedated European settlement. Over many thousands of years Native American tribes became indigenous to regional homelands and developed into a wide variety of distinctive provincial cultures with an array of languages and customs. Consider, for example, the log longhouses of the Iroquois, the adobe structures of the Pueblos, and the hide tipis of the Plains tribes. After first contact with Europeans and Africans in the 1600’s and 1700’s, many of these tribal cultures were decimated by disease or displaced by settlers, yet their descendants remained to preserve essential aboriginal regional traditions despite the transformation in ways of life caused by frontier cultural exchange. This cultural exchange not only insured the survival of those tribes and peoples who could adapt some European ways, but also the survival of various elements of aboriginal regional cultures that were appropriated by white settlers and their descendants, including farm crops, trails (later highways), placenames, and folk heroes (Sequoyah, Geronimo). These residues represent the regional cultural persistence of the native “vanishing American” who never quite vanished.
The American regionalist tradition proper may be said to have begun with the Puritan leader John Winthrop in 1630, when he sat on the ship Arbella off the coast of Massachusetts Bay and defined the New England “plantation” as a special “City upon a Hill.” Again, regionalism requires a distinctive local culture and geographical space as well as a self-awareness of distinctiveness. These famous words from “A Model of Christian Charity” arc often credited with introducing the theme of exceptionalism into American thought, the idea that America was a place of world-historical significance, a Promised Land where piety, liberty, and opportunity might be enjoyed as nowhere else on earth. In the early Protestant terms that defined exceptionalism, America was an “exception” from and a blessed contrast to decadent Europe, the heathen multitudes of Africa and Asia, and the evil tyranny of the Papacy. Yet we should observe that Winthrop here identified exceptionalism with “New England” rather than “America” or the “New World.” He anticipated the founding of other colonics, and his hope was that they might follow the model of godly society that he envisioned for the Puritans. God, he prayed, would “make us a praise and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: the Lord make it like that of New England.”
So began a refrain that was to recur in the regionalist tradition, arising out of far different cultural contexts and historical eras: the definition of one’s regional culture as unique because it was exceptional, embodying the values of the “real America” in opposition to the Old World and even other regional cultures within America. For Winthrop as for later regional proselytizers, this recourse to exceptionalism was an attempt to rally community consensus and preserve traditional ways and values threatened by the forces of change, both internal and external to the region. In the case of early New England, “commerce” was the devil stalking the Puritan community, as Winthrop already realized, portending envy and division rather than a closely knit pious life as “members of the same body.”
This refrain of a regionally seated exceptionalism was especially prominent in the writings of an important colonial observer of America’s regional diversity, J. Hector St. John dc Crévecoeur. In his pre-Revolutionary work Letters from an American Farmer (not published until 1782), he celebrated the regional differentiation that since Winthrop’s day had manifested itself in the English colonies. In the course of several generations, he noted, European immigrants had become “not only Americans in general, but either Pennsylvanians, Virginians, or provincials under some other name. Whoever traverses the continent must easily observe those strong differences, which will grow more evident in time,” he wrote. “The inhabitants of Canada, Massachusetts, the middle provinces, the southern ones, will be as different as their climates.” Crévecoeur particularly exalted Pennsylvania and the middle provinces, where he perceived a society of small republican freeholders living well within a bountiful natural environment. This society, “the most perfect now existing in the world,” had flourished under the “indulgent laws” of the Crown’s inefficient and decentralized empire, fostering a de facto libertarianism in America that Crévecoeur greatly praised.
Unfortunately, when the British government attempted to strengthen its imperial administration in the 1760’s, it provoked a revolution from colonial subjects who had grown accustomed to being but lightly governed. For Crévecoeur, however, who was branded a Tory and had to flee the country, the Revolution tragically destroyed the libertarian framework that had nurtured his beloved regional communities of independent republican farmers. Instead, the patriots unleashed the forces of democratic mob rule, grasping commercialism, and government coercion. In his imagination, Crévecoeur fled westward out of the lost exceptionalist promise of the new United States to dwell on the frontier among the Indians, who in his eyes yet lived as free men in communal harmony with nature.
Crévecoeur’s writings along with Winthrop’s exemplify the recurrent preoccupation of regionalists to preserve the social foundations of American exceptionalism from the dissolution of modernizing change. The good society for them and for later regionalists had certain common characteristics: it was communal, symbiotic, agrarian, small-town, traditionalist, and self-governing. This conception of the good society was sited in the region because the processes of social, political, and economic development occurred unevenly in the United States, particularly in the first half of the 19th century: some regions became “modern” faster and more thoroughly than others. Industrialization and urbanization took hold earliest in New England and the Northeast, tied by railroads and canals to the markets and farms of the interior Northern tier of states out to Iowa and Illinois. Yet in the South, despite its commercially advanced staple crop agriculture, many aspects of older, traditional society still reigned, preserved by isolation and the conservatism necessary to maintain white supremacy. In the plantation districts, slavery perpetuated social hierarchy and the ancient code of honor; in the backcountry, yeoman farmers still devoted themselves primarily to subsistence rather than the market, and hogs and cattle roamed the free-range of the forests. Much the same situation was true of the Western frontier. There as in the South, towns and cities were small and few, and the traditional agrarian rights of squatting, subsistence, and commons outweighed modern commercial prerogatives. From North to South and East to West, the degree and pace of modernization were thus regionally differentiated. In the eyes of 19th- and 20th-century regional defenders of the South and West, the social basis of exceptionalism had consequently retreated southward and westward out from the decadent, class-stratified industrial capitals of the Northeast and into the virtuous provinces, where the “real America” yet persisted.
The defense of traditional regional folkways against railroads, reformers, and robber barons—the agents of the new—underlay a good deal of the cultural conflict within and between regions that marked the remainder of the 19th century. As the remnants of Puritan culture disappeared from industrializing New England by the 1850’s, the famed regional renaissance of Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, and Thoreau both reflected and decried the secularism, materialism, and conformity that were displacing the old village life. More overtly, divergent and clashing regional identities came to the forefront of national politics during the sectional crises precipitating the Civil War. Southern intellectuals such as William Gilmore Simms and George Fitzhugh attacked the heartless and dehumanizing free labor economy of the North while proclaiming the moral and social superiority of the slave system. In his 1854 book Sociology for the South, Fitzhugh acknowledged the cultural gulf that now divided the regions of America: the South “is as ignorant of free society as that society is of slavery. Each section sees one side of the subject alone.” To Fitzhugh’s way of thinking and that of other pro-Southern advocates. Northern free society was based on the modern “evils of universal liberty and free competition.” The South, in contrast, was built upon an organic, paternalistic communalism. Northern free society—in the acrid terms of sectional debate—was a “monstrous abortion,” while Southern slavery was a “healthy, beautiful and natural being.” The rhetorical broadsides of Northern abolitionists and free labor spokesmen, needless to say, mirrored and reversed these social critiques. And the war came—misnamed by Southerners the War Between the States. It was a war between regions, each fighting to perpetuate its vision of the good society and thereby preserve American exceptionalism.
In the decades following the Civil War, sectional conflict again erupted out of the regionally differentiated advance of urban-industrialization. During the 1870’s and 1880’s, the destruction and debt caused by the war spread the cotton economy into the Southern backcountry, and along with it came tenancy and sharecropping. At the same time, the frontier closed in the Plains states. First the open-range Cattle Kingdom met its demise, and then the homesteader’s frontier filled-up. Soon enough the Plains farmers found themselves in a state of debt and dependency much like their Southern counterparts, beholden to implement dealers and mortgage companies, hostage to railroad monopolies. The grassroots uprising known as the Populist revolt pitted (in their minds) the debtor West and South against the moneychangers of the creditor East. From a larger perspective. Populism represented the last historical occasion in which agrarian republican values animated a significant portion of the Southern and Western electorate, compelling them to challenge the power of national corporations and finance capitalism on behalf of greater local independence and communal cooperation.
The passing of the frontier in the 1890’s announced the eclipse of rural America generally. By 1920, fully one-half of the nation’s citizens would live in urban areas. The waning of frontier virtues and rural lifestyles was witnessed with particular acuteness in the Midwest, which underwent its own cultural renaissance in these decades. Edward Eggleston, Hamlin Garland, Mark Twain, Willa Gather, Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, and Sinclair Lewis were some of the luminaries chronicling the post-frontier, post-rural transition. Frederick Jackson Turner should also be counted among them. His 1920’s works on the “section” perhaps more than any others synthesized a vision of the pluralism inherent in America’s diverse regional landscape—at the very time when the remnants of that diversity seemed most seriously in danger of dissolution.
For by the 1920’s and 1930’s, artists and intellectuals across the United States had ample reason to appreciate with Turner the exceptionalistic pluralism of regional America. Further technological and economic innovation had fully unleashed what was perceived by this generation to be one of the most insidious forces for “megalopolitan” homogenization and standardization: mass culture. Radio, the automobile, the phonograph, chain stores, and motion pictures were spreading a bleakly anonymous mass cultural “world without a country” (as regional planner Benton MacKaye called it) over the diverse landscape of provincial America, threatening to obliterate it. Conscious like Turner of the long-standing regional tradition of which they were the inheritors, interwar regionalists were spurred by the profound crisis of the Great Depression to offer a vision of a decentralized, symbiotic “regional civilization” as an ideological alternative to a possible future of coercive socialism or the hegemony of corporate megalopolitanism. As Andrew Lytic advised in the 1930 regionalist manifesto I’ll Take My Stand, “Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall.” Only through the creation of the regional civilization could America return to and sustain its fading exceptionalism.
Andrew Lytle, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, and the Southern Agrarians were the most famous members of the interwar regionalist revolt, but they were joined by Lewis Mumford’s New York-New England circle of regional planners; by Southwesterners such as Walter Prescott Webb, J. Frank Dobie, B. A. Botkin, Mary Austin, and Henry Nash Smith; by Midwestern writers and artists like Mari Sandoz, Thomas Hart Benton, and John G. Neihardt; and by Western radicals such as Carey McWilliams and John Steinbeck. In the past and present of their respective regions, interwar regionalists looked for inspiration to the folkways and values of Native American tribes, the Southern yeomanry, the New England village, the hillfolk of the Ozarks and Appalachia, the homesteaders of the Plains, Southwestern cowboys and vaqueros. Southern black country folk, and still other remnants of an older, rural America that was fast disappearing. They hoped at the very least to preserve these vestiges of the country’s folkish provincial past in fiction, histories, sociologies, paintings, and photographs. But their ultimate project was to reconstruct modern American culture and society in accordance with folk-regional values, a Utopian project indeed: big city sprawl was to be replaced with smallscale “garden cities,” and land monopolies were to be redistributed in order to restore a society of independent family farms.
The very radicalness and grandiosity of the interwar regionalists’ vision was a hallmark of its unreality, of how far away from its folk-agrarian past the United States had “progressed” by the mid-20th century. Yet even into the post-World War II era, regional identities and divisions persisted in the face of the powerful homogenizing forces of television, the welfare state, corporate conglomerates, and economic globalization. The South in the I950’s and I960’s resisted the federal impositions of the civil rights movement. The West in the I970’s raised the banner of the Sagebrush Rebellion against federal control of public lands. Although both white Southerners and Western developers saw themselves as victims of Northeastern liberals in the national government, a historic shift in the regional distribution of power was ironically already under way. With the postwar rise of the Sunbelt, the former provinces and “colonies” of the South and West underwent urban-industrial takeoff, experiencing a spectacular increase in population and political influence, while the Rustbelt of the Northeast fell into demographic, economic, and political decline. New York City remained the cultural center it had long boasted itself to be, but in sports, broadcasting, fashion, publishing, and other areas of cultural production, it now had many rivals scattered across the country, most of them Sunbelt cities—Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles. By the 1970’s and 1980’s, Washington, D.C., also confronted a challenge to its power as a national capital, the object of ire for a conservative, antigovernment revolt launched from the South and the West. The United States remained in many ways a contentious “union of potential nations.”
The centuries-old regionalist tradition, however, did not envision a good society of competing metropolises. Nevertheless, we can find traces of the legacy of Crévecoeur, Thoreau, Turner, and Mumford in the postwar period as well. Environmentalists are to some extent their present-day heirs, with their concern for living symbiotically and preserving the integrity of the natural landscape. But the near-exclusive focus of environmentalists on wilderness landscapes has neglected what earlier regionalists prized, the cultivated agrarian “working landscapes” that still exist in some corners of rural America, and that regional planners and rural advocates have in recent years begun to deem worthy of preservation. Ironically, not only activism and regulation but commerce has also come to the rescue of regional rootedness and diversity. With public and private funds, many local communities have restored historic, humanly scaled downtowns and neighborhoods for residential, commercial, and recreational use. As tourism has grown in importance within the postindustrial service economy, state tourist bureaus have tapped into regional myth and history to package their destinations as unique (Southern or Western or New England) Americana. The uniqueness of place sells, they have discovered. These various preservation efforts maintain, however tenuously, our connection to the nation’s regional past amid the mass cultural cacophony produced by Hollywood and Madison Avenue.
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