Last December, after seven years in Washington, I loaded the family into a tank-like SUV and headed west. Starting on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, we were taking the long way home to Australia, driving into Ohio, along the southern edge of Michigan, to Chicago, Illinois. With wild snow storms threatening to shut the highways, we hopped on a plane for the leg to Utah, before grabbing another vehicle for the trip past the salt lakes, into Nevada and down the length of California to Los Angeles.
The book that acted as my companion on the month-long journey, American Nations, by Colin Woodward, described our route differently. According to Woodward’s map of the United States, our drive started in Tidewater, snaked through the Midlands and along the edges of Yankeedom and Greater Appalachia, into the Far West and then south to El Norte.
Woodward’s book provides an alternative imagining of the US. Instead of today’s conventional carving-up of the country, into red and blue (Republican and Democratic) states, Woodward divides the country according to the patterns of European settlement of different regions. Each of these areas, in Woodward’s virtuosic rendering, retains much of the distinct character brought by the settlers.
Tidewater, our starting point, an area dominated by Virginia, is authoritarian and traditional, unsurprisingly so, as it was founded by English gentry. Yankeedom, too, reflects its Calvinists pioneers, still distinguished by a belief in education, self-improvement and an active citizenry.