The Woodard projection

In a memorable episode of The West Wing, visitors from the Cartographers for Social Justice upend CJ’s and Josh’s worldviews.

Cartographer: “The Peters projection.”

CJ: “What the hell is that?”

Cartographer: “It’s where you’ve been living this whole time.”

I’m having the same reaction to Colin Woodard’s 2011 book American Nations. He sees North America as three federations of nations. The federation we call the United States comprises nations he calls Yankeedom, New Netherland, The Midlands, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, The Deep South, El Norte, The Far West, and The Left Coast.

Here’s his definition of a nation:

A nation is a group of people who share — or believe they share — a common culture, ethnic origin, language, historical experience, artifacts, and symbols.”

Worldwide some nations are stateless, some align with state borders, and some cut across state borders. North America’s eleven nations are, in his view, stateless, cutting across state boundaries in ways I find disorienting but enlightening.

On his map (from a 2013 Tufts alumni magazine article now readable only at the Internet Archive) I have marked the US places where I’ve lived.

Until now, if you asked me where I’ve lived, I’d have said East Coast and Midwest and recently California. According to the Woodard projection I have lived in four nations: Yankeedom, The Midlands, Tidewater, and The Left Coast. It wasn’t easy to locate my homes on his map. They all occupy a narrow band of latitude. On the East Coast, that band touches three of Woodard’s nations. In two of those, Yankeedom and The Midlands, I lived near the cradles of nations that spread far north and west.

I’m from near Philadelphia, in The Midlands, “founded by English Quakers, who welcomed people of many nations and creeds to their utopian colonies on the shores of Delaware Bay.” That resonates. I grew up in a place called Plymouth Meeting and went to Quaker kindergarten there. It would never have occurred to me that Philadelphia is culturally closer to places as far west as Nebraska, and as far north as the province of Ontario, than to Baltimore or Boston. Likewise I never thought of Ann Arbor, where I called myself a midwesterner, as part of a culture that flowed west from Boston. Or that Baltimore sits at the intersection of three nations.

These eleven nations have been hiding in plain sight throughout our history. You see them outlined on linguists’ dialect maps, cultural anthropologists’ maps of material culture regions, cultural geographers’ maps of religious regions, campaign strategists’ maps of political geography, and historians’ maps of the pattern of settlement across the continent.

Two of the eleven nations, Yankeedom and The Deep South, have been “locked in nearly perpetual combat for control of the federal government since the moment such a thing existed,” Woodard says.

The analysis, which builds on prior art that he cites, may be a helpful way to contextualize the 2016 US election.

“The Woodard projection.”

“What the hell is that?”

“It’s where you’ve been living this whole time.”

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2 thoughts on “The Woodard projection

  1. Yeah, I’d say it’s about right, although I believe Appalachia and the South are moving up to eat that PA slice of midlands (where I also grew up). Last time I was back in the Lehigh Valley I was shocked by how much South was around — accentwise, attitudinally, family-relationswise. The old Quaker and Dutch remnants are there, and still influential culturally, but a certain internal globalization brought the Bronx and the South simultaneously, in search of different things maybe, or pushed for different reasons, but the old humid valleys seem to have lost some definition as a distinct place culturally.

    An interesting thing about the midlands is how closely it cleaves to a couple of interstate highways. I live now in one of these “down the road a piece” midwestern midlands areas, and the only boarding school nearby is a Quaker school. My daughter went to the most Quaker hippie daycare I could’ve imagined — what good table manners, with bare feet and dreadlocks, and what intentional education — and I believe there are meetings around.

    Likewise, yes, Michigan was the next stop for a lot of Yankee habit, attenuated after a while, and I wound up marrying some, which didn’t go well.

    The most persistently vital American culture I know, though, is that of New Amsterdam, where I started out. I didn’t live there long, then became a regular visitor, but most of my family remained there. And watching Ric Burns’ long New York documentary series recently showed me how profoundly New Amsterdam informed my character, my values, my sense of what the world and societies are and should be. The parochialism is profound but also undeniably potent: I’m writing from a perfectly good major city, and yet I’m convinced that these people don’t know how to (walk/ride a train/train museum guards/etc. etc.) because why, because it’s not New York. Which does these things better, or did, in one of the millions of defunct New Yorks of the mind. But it’s also enormously expansive: the notion of fear of immigrants and their languages and customs appears as an idiocy, and the fear of change is something that doesn’t deserve the time of day: of course things change, all the time: what’s next, who’s next? There is a presumption of “public”, of the rights of the citizen to things beyond material necessity. Of rights to the greatest art, the best education, to opportunity, to a hearing. The fear of not being number one: well, really, if you can get up there at all, that’s tremendous, but who expects to stay, with so much talent around? You have your moment. There is a generativity that’s required, and the work that ignores whether it’s day or night, and I haven’t met that anywhere else so far in this country.

    There was a bit in that documentary series to do with the early 20th c., the beginning of aviation in that daredevil way, and this historian said something about a presumption that you could throw yourself up into the sky, and the sky would be your friend. That, it seems to me, remains a true thing about New Amsterdam and how it forms its inhabitants.

    1. > because why, because it’s not New York. Which does these things better

      Mom was from NJ, dad from PA, they met in NYC at Columbia and imbibed some of that attitude. When I first lived in Ann Arbor: “What time is it there?” “Look at your watch.” “Can you get fresh bagels in Ann Arbor?” “Yes.”

      > the notion of fear of immigrants and their languages and customs appears as an idiocy

      And yet:

      “full-on slavery was introduced to what is now the US not by the gentlemen planters of Virginia or South Carolina but by the merchants of Manhattan.”

      Somewhere, he alludes to an ongoing New Netherland / Deep South axis, which made me think: “Trump? Central Park Five?”

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