All Over the Map: Rethinking American Regions

by Edward L. Ayers, Peter Onuf, Patricia Nelson Limerick and Stephen Nissenbaum

A Review by David Sarratt

All Over the Map begins with the premise that regionalism cannot exist without nationalism. The South, New England, and the West only seem worth thinking about in the "common context" (p. 1) of the whole United States. The authors note that Americans feel their deepest loyalty to regions, in a "cyclical process of forgetfulness and rediscovery," (p. 2) when their sense of nationalism is weakest (in the 1930s and with a resurgence since 1970). Americans tend to carry with them a persistent set of general assumptions about regions. First, regional identity comes from a past, which may or may not have existed, that "must be preserved from the ravages of modern life" (p. 3). The second assumption is that regions have become distinctive, as Crevcoeur would agree, because of their diverse topographies. Thus, we tend to think of the people from their respective regions as having some metaphorical correspondence to the land on which they live (i.e. New Englanders are cold and rocky). With these assumptions in mind, in the subsequent essays of the book, the authors set out, as the subtitle suggests, to reexamine the ways in which we study American regions.

First, Peter Onuf makes the argument that sectionalism, later described as the evil twin of regionalism, has its origins in the federal and republican system created by the framers in the Constitution. In short, he identifies the salient "consciousness of sectional distinctions" during the Confederation period as a cause of anxiety about disunion among the framers. In an attempt to remedy the situation by creating a strong central government using vague language, the framers ironically gave states righters a long term institutional excuse for complaints of a distant and tyrannical federal government. With the onset of civil war in 1861, Sectionalism became the framer's "great and tragic self-fulfilling prophecy" (p. 36)

The remainder of the book is composed of three essays, one on each of the nations primary regions: New England, the South, and the West. The first, by Mr. Nissenbaum on New England, defines the region through time by its composition of smaller entities (i.e. towns, factory villages, pastoralized postbellum communities). New England was able to achieve cultural dominance by virtue of the fact that towns were a more conducive environment for churches, public spaces, and educational institutions than the South, where independent individual farmers lived miles apart.

In the second essay, Mr. Ayers identifies the South as the region most studied, discussed, stereotyped, and ridiculed for its singularity within the national fabric. However, his argument systematically questions the need for such attention. Mr. Ayers concludes that, contrary to the belief of most Southerners, the South "was not a fixed, known place but a place of constant movement, struggle, and negotiation" between the clashing opposites of rich and poor, black and white, democracy and oppression (81).

The essay by Ms. Limerick defines the West as a vast and diverse place with a set of inconsistent but often overlapping characteristics, such as aridity, racial mixture (more than just blacks and whites), and a romantic sense of "unsettled conquest" (91). In a somewhat similar strain of thought to that of Mr. Ayers, Ms. Limerick examines the rational weaknesses of thinking about American history in terms of regions. She asks the question: Are we interested in regional stories simply because they are our own, like a third grader's mom is interested in her childs minor part in the school play? Throughout the book through different authors, the idea surfaces that our extreme self-consciousness of regionalism may in fact be an "indication of the death of real lasting regions" (p. 3). However, on the other side of the methodological spectrum, she also warns that if scholars push too hard at the existing categories and terminologies seeking pure and precise absolutes, academic discourse would soon be impossible for lack of tools.

In conclusion regionalism as a method of study must find its due place within the larger historical narrative, as well as literally within the context of the nation.

All Over the Map. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.