In my last post I reflected on author and journalist Colin Woodard’s recent arguments that the United States is composed of eleven ostensibly autonomous “nations.” In explaining the origins of these “nations,” Woodard purports to assert that the cultural differences between these “nations” are so significant that our political disagreements over contemporary issues such as gun violence and gun control can be traced back to cultural differences between these “nations” hundreds of years ago. I listened to several audio interviews and closely read three articles (including a rather lengthy and descriptive one in Tufts Magazine) by Woodard explaining the premise of his arguments. In analyzing these resources, I concluded that Woodard’s scholarship on this matter was rather dubious. When I refer to the word “dubious,” I do not mean to argue that Woodard’s scholarship is fraudulent or illegitimate; rather, I believe there is a lot to be uncertain about in making such strong conclusions on a rather complex topic. He may be right in his conclusions, but my understanding of various historical cultures raises many questions in my eyes.
Well, guess who had a chance to read my essay last night:
@NickSacco55 critique would be more interesting/relevant if you judged the book rather than short summary for mag article.
— Colin Woodard (@WoodardColin) November 14, 2013
And so it goes.
As a friend and colleague remarked, “you have a book to read.” I’ve obtained a copy of Woodard’s book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America and plan on going through it meticulously over the next month or so. This reading exercise will actually be great in challenging me to read the book for method as much as for content. As I go through it, I’ll be asking several questions to help guide my understanding and interpretation of Woodard’s arguments. Most notably, I’ll ask the following:
1. What is a “nation,” as defined by Woodard? Is it a plausible definition? Ditto to the word “culture.”
2. What are the primary sources Woodard uses to bolster his argument? How does he use these sources to provide context for readers to help them comprehend what historical actors at a given period understood of the world during their lifetime? In sum, are Woodard’s interpretations reflective of what his historical actors understood of the world, or what Woodard understands of those historical actors’ worlds?
3. What secondary sources are being used?
4. What is the time frame in which Woodard proposes to analyze?
5. Does Woodard succeed in creating a “useable past” that sheds light on contemporary issues? In other words, does Woodard succeed in thinking historically, or does he merely display historical imagination?
Between two major school projects, finishing the last part of my third and final chapter of my master’s thesis (hopefully!), and the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, I’ll be plenty busy in the near future. Nevertheless, I look forward to spending time with Woodard’s book and promise to provide additional commentary on this blog at a future date. Additionally, I will do so as fairly and as impartially as possible and am perfectly willing to correct my initial assessment of Woodard’s scholarship if I can be convinced. If the roles were reversed I would hope for my scholarship to be treated in much the same manner.
I thank Colin Woodard for reading this little graduate student’s rantings and thank those who spend time out of their busy schedules to read and comment at Exploring the Past since I started this blog almost a year ago.