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Joseph Conforti's new book is a sweeping and sure-footed analysis of the New England regional identity. (Charles Reagan Wilson, Director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi)
Copyright © 2001 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
Region and the Imagination
In The Dogs of March (1979), perhaps the best novel ever written about New Hampshire, Ernest Hebert relates the story of a transplanted Midwesterner. As a young girl living in Kansas City, Zoe Cutter discovered a picture of an idyllic New Hampshire town in National Geographic magazine: "forested hills, fields that rode the lower slopes, a tidy stone wall bordering a country lane, white birches in the foreground like two angels, white church steeple just showing behind maples in the background." For thirty years Cutter accepts National Geographic's image of the "real" New England as if it were "a page from the Bible." As she enters middle age, her mental postcard of life in New England inspires her to relocate. She purchases the "Swett Place" in the fictional town of Darby. Cutter sets out to tidy up her property—to straighten the stone walls, prune forested fields, and "open a country boutique in the barn." In other words, Cutter uses an old magazine image to transform the Swett Place and to bring the real New England of her imagination into existence.
Through Zoe Cutter, a major character in his New Hampshire novel, Hebert suggests how regions are real locations but also imagined places. Visual images accumulated over time distill the perceived cultural essence that defines regional identity and distinctiveness. In turn, as territories on the ground and countries of the imagination, regions bring geographic and cultural order to the sprawling continental United States. Regions help make America geographically comprehensible.
Regions are not only concrete geographic domains but also conceptual places. Humans define regions; they are not geographic entities that define themselves. Regional identity is not simply an organic outcome of human interaction with the physical environment—the geology and climate, for example—of a particular place. Regions are real places but also historical artifacts whose cultural boundaries shift over time.
New England, however, seems like such a "natural" region. Huddled in the nation's Northeastern corner, New England endures as America's smallest region. On a map, size tends to bestow on New England a natural coherence and wholeness that eludes other, more geographically and imaginatively unwieldy regions. The expansive South, Midwest, and West are often divided into subregions, but the more proportioned New England seems to abide intact. "We have so much country that we have no country at all," Nathaniel Hawthorne complained. "New England is as large a lump of earth as my heart can readily take in." This "natural" region stands as a habitable place where life is lived on a human scale. New England embraces the Union's smallest state. New England is a region of towns hived off from larger towns whose boundary signs announce the date of their birth and help create not only a sense of history but also a terrain dense with border crossings. The region's urban landscape is dotted with small to midsize cities. In New England, distances pose few obstacles to tourists bent on exploring seacoast and mountains or to urban-based owners of ski chalets or vacation homes. If one eliminates Maine's Aroostook County, the kind of far-flung, thinly populated district that one finds in other sections of America, even New England's largest state more closely resembles the region's geopolitical norm.
If its six states do not actually comprise a natural region, the scale of life in most of New England suggests that it is a cultural region—a place where people have etched distinctive patterns into the landscape. But to describe New England as a cultural region does not resolve the problem of its distinctiveness; it only offers a basis for examining New England's history and identity. Culture, after all, far from being fixed and holistic, is dynamic, continually changing, and historically contingent. The same is true of regional identities. In fact, for more than three centuries New Englanders have responded to changes like the nineteenth-century ethnic, urban, and industrial transformation of the region's Southern states by revising explanations of regional distinctiveness. Such efforts typically singled out certain cultural patterns and geographic locations and excluded others in the construction of regional identity. Though they did not use the term, the historical architects of regional identity endeavored not only to define but also to delimit and stabilize New England as a cultural region.
Yet much of New England originated and developed as a cultural outpost of a powerful Puritan religious movement. Moreover, as Hawthorne's mid-nineteenth-century stories and novels suggest, Puritanism's imprint on the region persisted long after the collapse of New England's church-state alliance and the demise of Calvinist orthodoxy. Still, the Puritan era too often has functioned as a New England ur-civilization, invoked across time to explain everything from the region's low homicide rate to the fatalism of its Boston Red Sox fans. A scholarly monument enshrines Puritanism as the most studied subject of the American past. And highly trained scholars of Puritanism have not been known for caution in their claims.
In Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989), David Hackett Fischer offers the most sweeping and controversial interpretation of how Puritanism forever stamped New England's cultural DNA. Influential Puritan founders from East Anglia reproduced in New England the folkways of the world they had left behind. From speech and dress to work, politics, and diet East Anglian founders transferred their religiously informed folkways to the New World. In Fischer's "genetic" history, Puritan folkways not only defined the distinctive culture of colonial New England; they have endured as the shaping elements of regional life down to the present. Similarly, settlers from other parts of Britain carried their folkways to the Delaware Valley, Virginia, and the colonial backcountry, giving birth to what remain historically determined cultural regions that have spread outward from their original hearths.
Fischer's monumental interpretation of the historical origins and persistence of regionalism in American life was greeted with a mixture of praise and criticism. Albion's Seed is best understood as a product of the revival of regionalism that gained momentum in the 1980s, a movement that benefited from a new skepticism directed at narratives of a monolithic American identity that Cold War cultural nationalism had generated. America now seemed to be a nation of many stories. American history was miniaturized by the 1980s. Microstudies of communities and particular groups proliferated. A multicultural past was born.
Albion's Seed was a response both to the state of American historical writing and to the renewal of regional studies. If no overarching national narratives could explain America, then a limited number of regional narratives might stave off the "pulverization of the past," the reduction of American history to particles of human experience that comprise no whole. Regional history offered an interpretive middle ground between exclusionary national narratives and endless local stories. Fischer's genetic approach to American cultural regions also coincided with and lent historical support to the revival of regionalism, manifested, for example, in the growth of regional studies centers at academic institutions across the country. Albion's Seed repudiated declension models of regional change: the idea that coherent cultural regions may have existed in the past but that they have been in decline for decades as modern and postmodern alterations of American life homogenized the nation.
In Albion's Seed, the cultural holism once imputed to the nation is transferred to region. "America" may be destabilized but "New England" persists as a concrete, seemingly static, almost transhistorical cultural whole. Albion's Seed ignores differences within regions in the course of emphasizing differences between them. If regional cultures and identities have persisted through time, they have not done so in quite the genetic ways that Albion's Seed suggests. Fischer's regional cultures extend across space and time but do not seem to undergo major change within their borders. New England may be older and more conceptually stable than America has been, but it has clearly evolved as a dynamic, constantly changing place. Moreover, new interpretive needs have arisen from social, economic, and political changes that have required continuing revision of New England regional identity. Both persistence and change compel the historian of regional life to ground New England identity and cultural distinctiveness on shifting earth.
Puritanism does loom as a tradition that shaped New England in the colonial era and beyond. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, for example, the Puritan commitment to literacy placed New England in the forefront of American education, newspaper publishing, and lyceum founding. Similarly, Puritanism cultivated an interest in the past; from the colonial era through the nineteenth century, New Englanders were America's most prolific producers of historical works. Puritan literacy and historical-mindedness spawned a culture of print that conferred on New England the earliest and, by independence, the most well-developed regional identity of any American region. Along with this regional identity Puritanism propagated a New England sense of moral and intellectual superiority that often irritated outsiders.
But acknowledging such continuities across time that may be traced to New England's founders should not obscure the fact that Puritanism itself was hardly the fixed, cohesive cultural juggernaut that typically undergirds interpretations of regional distinctiveness such as Fischer's. "The Puritanism of the founders was not a stable, reified, and distilled set of ideas ready to be implemented in the pure laboratory of the American wilderness," one of the most recent and astute scholars of the movement argues, "but a complex and sometimes contradictory set of impulses." Similarly, the leading contemporary historian of early New England religion urges us to "move from an essentialist understanding of Puritanism" toward one that recognizes the religious movement as adaptive, evolutionary, "dynamic," "contextual," and "multilayered." The same terms might be applied to New England identity, not only during the Puritan era but also across the arc of regional history that extends from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. Though my analysis acknowledges, indeed traces, Puritan-Yankee continuities in regional culture, it emphasizes how tradition remains, or, rather, becomes, tradition by a continual process of invention and reinvention.
My examination of regional identity also stresses how the landscape of New England life has constantly changed over time, requiring periodic historical and geographic redeployment of region as a country of the imagination. Since David Fischer published his monumental work more than a decade ago, historical study of American regions has gradually moved in new directions that have shaped my approach to New England identity. Scholars increasingly recognize how regions and regional identities are culturally constructed. Some analysts have claimed that a "new regional studies" perspective is emerging. If there is a historical manifesto for a new regional studies movement, it may be found in the editors' brief introduction to All Over the Map: Rethinking American Regions, a recent volume of essays on the South, New England, the Midwest, and the West. Edward L. Ayers and Peter S. Onuf draw on contemporary notions of culture as something that is fluid, contested, and negotiated to caution against "attempts to freeze places in time or to define some particular component of a region as its essence, leading regionalists to despair when that essence seems to be disappearing." For Ayers and Onuf, "regions have always been complex and unstable constructions, generated by constantly evolving systems of government, economy, migration, event, and culture."
To describe regions as unstable constructions, however, is not to suggest that they are the geocultural equivalent of a false-front Western town. Regions are both historically grounded and culturally invented, components of their identity that change over time. Indeed, regions are rhetorically and conceptually unstable because they are not static worlds on the ground. Historians are increasingly examining both persistence and change in the grounded cultural patterns that confer distinctiveness on American regions. They are also becoming more aware of how certain patterns and images are singled out and others excluded in the construction of regional identities.
Although this study offers a connected narrative that stretches from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, it is an exploration, not a comprehensive history, of regional identity and regional culture. The chapters do not constitute a survey of New England as symbol and myth. Nor do they attempt to peel away barnacled myths to expose the "real" New England. Rather, this study approaches regional identity as the cultural terrain where the imagined and the historic New England "interpenetrate." As one historian of the West has put it, "The mythic West imagined by Americans has shaped the West of history just as the West of history has helped create the West Americans have imagined. The two cannot be neatly severed."
For most of the twentieth century the West has probably been America's "most strongly imagined" region. But New England, with its early historical consciousness and high rate of literacy and cultural production, developed as America's first strongly imagined region. New England, one historian of the colonial era recently observed, was a creation of "stories told about its past" as well as "a place mapped on the ground by settlers." From providential Puritans, to Whiggish antebellum Yankees, to nostalgic colonial revivalists, to partisan academics, New Englanders dominated American historical writing from the seventeenth to well into the twentieth century. New England has been a storied place. Its identity has been encoded in narratives about its past—stories that have been continually revised in response to new interpretive needs generated by the transformations of regional life. Imagined pasts have helped New Englanders negotiate, traditionalize, and resist change. To call the changing narratives that have undergirded New England culture and regional identity imagined pasts, however, is not to suggest that they are sheer myth with no empirical foundation. Rather, it is to argue that these narratives are partial truths, selective interpretations of New England experience that are held up as the whole truth.
My analysis historicizes New England identity and its narrative infrastructure, examining how the discourse of regional distinctiveness attempted to establish cultural and conceptual order on a dynamic place that did not define itself. Religious dissenters, "profane" economic opportunists, and non-English immigrants disrupted the region's Puritan and, later, Yankee culture and identity. Moreover, even the cultural mediators of Puritan-Yankee tradition did not typically speak in one voice. In the antebellum decades, for example, moderate antislavery reformers and more radical abolitionists stirred the regional imagination and appealed to Pilgrim-Puritan tradition in different ways. Moderates invoked the creation and preservation of civic order as the defining cultural legacy of New England's founders, whereas radicals summoned the come-outer moral activism of the Pilgrim-Puritan fathers.
The chapters that follow explore the conflicts and tensions that vexed New England culture and that formulations of regional identity tended to obscure, if not resolve. New England has been a posted territory, where certain people, places, and historical experiences have been excluded or relegated to the cultural margins. Consider Rhode Island. From its emergence as a kind of refugee camp from Puritanism, to the national coercion that was required to end its three-year resistance to joining the Union, to its turn-of-the-twentieth-century distinction as America's most ethnic state, Rhode Island has resided beyond the cultural borders or at the periphery of the "real" New England. In retaliation, Rhode Islanders sometimes have spun their own narratives of regional origins. Taking exception to the nineteenth-century epic account of the Pilgrims and Plymouth, for instance, Rhode Islanders held up the persecuted Roger Williams and the founding of Providence as marking the birth of American civic and religious liberty that then spread to the rest of the American republic, including New England.
Dominant historical narratives of regional identity have performed their cultural work by a process of inclusion and exclusion. Moreover, these narratives have been constructed not only through the written and spoken word but also through a canon of visual markers—icons of regional identity like the townscape enshrined in National Geographic that became lodged in Zoe Cutter's imagination. For a region settled by iconophobic Puritans, New England's past inspired, beginning in the nineteenth century, abundant visual and material artifacts of regional identity—statues, monuments, sacred landscapes, prints, photographs, and more. New England identity acquired concrete shape through such material artifacts.
This study proceeds by first examining New England as a changing place on the ground. It then historicizes both the narratives and visual markers of regional identity—the imaginative responses to the new interpretive needs created by the shifting landscape of New England life. Regional identity emerges as far more than an elite construction. Though access to power underwrites successful efforts to affirm regional identity across space and time, the historical agents who appear in the following chapters—New England's changing "cultural custodians" and guardians of the past—do not neatly align on one side of a divide that separates elite from popular culture. Puritan preachers and historians certainly occupied a privileged position in early New England, but they also served as broad, even popular, cultural mediators. Jedidiah Morse, "the father of American geography," drafted texts that were widely used in schools and colleges and readily found in home libraries of the early republic. Lydia Maria Child and Harriet Beecher Stowe were prolific and popular writers of fiction and nonfiction. The enterprising John Barber produced scores of engravings of antebellum New England town scenes. Alice Morse Earle wrote best-selling, extensively illustrated colonial revival histories of early New England. Robert Frost made a career as a popular poet-performer of New England Yankeeness. Robb Sagendorph founded Yankee in the depths of the Great Depression and saw it become one of the most popular regional magazines in the country.
In considering these and many other famous and not-so-well-known New Englanders, the following pages analyze how regional identity was both created and culturally transmitted. Settlement promotional literature, Puritan histories, regional geographies, works of fiction, town commemorations, historical pageants, visual artifacts, colonial revival museums, Yankee magazine—the texts, institutions, and rituals that supplied the means for the cultural production of New England identity—have changed over time.
My analysis begins with Puritan efforts to colonize and exercise imaginative dominion over New England. Chapter 1 explores the founding of New England and how first-generation Puritan migrants took physical and imaginative possession of the region as a "second England." By design this chapter is the shortest in this study, for the founding generation has been the subject of countless books and articles. Chapter 2 analyzes changes in Puritan colonial life and shifts in New England's relationship with the English homeland that required revisions of regional identity. From the second half of the seventeenth century through the first half of the eighteenth century, regional identity was first Americanized and then re-Anglicized. My interpretation of Puritan culture, colonial society, and New England's collective image is rooted in a reading of primary sources, but it also uses the problem of regional identity to synthesize findings from one of the richest bodies of scholarship in American historiography.
Puritanism bequeathed to Revolutionary New Englanders the most well-developed collective identity of any American region. Between independence and the Civil War, the Union served as a national arena where, through political conflict and collective cultural differentiation, New England sharpened its sense of historical distinctiveness from other American regions. Jedidiah Morse's pioneering and widely read geography texts are the focus of Chapter 3. His "American" geographies endeavored to stabilize a rapidly changing New England as the nation's only cultural region and to assert its superiority over other parts of the republic. Morse's influential geographies inscribed the highly politicized regionalism and moralistic republicanism of Federalist New England—a geopolitics that made the Puritan homeland, not the South, the first hotbed of secessionist sentiment.
The antebellum decades witnessed the continuing consolidation of New England identity around narratives and images of the region's distinctive republican past. Chapter 4 examines the emergence of Yankee identity and the growth of a "Greater New England" in the North. Conflict with the South, the missionizing of the West, a regional literary renaissance, town bicentennial commemorations, and the "invention" of the Yankee, the Pilgrims, and the orderly central village—these and other important aspects of the antebellum era shaped New England in ways that have escaped systematic explanation but that continue to influence our understanding of regional identity. The story of this powerful antebellum "reinvention" of New England occupies what is, by necessity, a lengthy and heavily illustrated chapter.
New England's antebellum national regionalism, cultural imperialism, and Whiggish confidence in historical progress appeared to triumph in the Northern victory in the Civil War. Perhaps, the entire nation, including a reformed South, would become a Greater New England. Chapter 5 probes the demise of New England triumphalism and the rise of the nostalgic colonial revival in the decades after the Civil War. The rapid pace of industrialization, urbanization, and, most important, ethnic transformation undermined Yankee confidence in New England's and America's future. When the first federal census had been taken in 1790, New England held 27 percent of the American population. By 1880, that number had fallen to 8 percent, with non-English-speaking immigrants a rapidly growing presence. By then, "Old New England" had emerged as an object of nostalgia and veneration. The rising Midwest increasingly replaced New England as the national heartland, the location of a vital, progressive young America.
Throughout this study I have tried to suggest how regional identities are fashioned relationally. In the colonial era, New England saw itself in relationship to the English homeland and imperial center. Within the national political framework established after independence, regional identities were continually fashioned and revised through a reciprocal process of collective differentiation. The South, the Midwest, and the West were both real and imagined places that helped New Englanders define the cultural boundaries of their own region.
My analysis also shows how the imaginative centers of regional identity have changed over time. Chapter 6 explores how in the twentieth century the imaginative center of the "real" New England migrated northward. The popularity of Robert Frost and the success of Yankee magazine reveal how intraregional differences between North and South promoted the imaginative relocation of authentic Old New England to New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont.
This study is a work of synthesis and original scholarship. The nation's smallest region may also be its most studied one. As a historian who has specialized in New England Puritanism, I am accustomed to feeling both blessed and daunted by what others have written. Throughout this book, especially in the early chapters, my interpretations draw on and extend the work of other scholars. But my examination of New England identity also incorporates large amounts of original scholarship on topics that have received little or no academic analysis—geography textbooks and the new nation, the feminization of the Yankee character, the creation of the House of the Seven Gables Museum, Robert Frost and the regional revival of the 1920s and 1930s, and the founding of Yankee magazine, to name several. Such subjects map out my search for post-Puritan sources of New England's cultural distinctiveness.
1. Ernest Hebert, The Dogs of March (New York, 1979), pp. 58-59.
2. Hawthorne quoted in Michael C. Steiner and Clarence Mondale, eds., Region and Regionalism in the United States: A Source Book for the Humanities and Social Sciences (New York, 1988), p. x.
3. David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York, 1989). See the excellent "Forum" on Fischer's volume in William and Mary Quarterly 48 (April 1991): 224-308.
4. I am using the language of David Harlan to describe the state of American historical writing. See The Degradation of American History (Chicago, 1997), p. 67.
5. For a classic interpretation of change and the decline of New England's cultural distinctiveness, see George Wilson Pierson, "The Obstinate Concept of New England: A Study in Denudation," New England Quarterly 28 (March 1955): 3-17. For a guide to regionalist sentiment, see Steiner and Mondale, Region and Regionalism.
6. On the substitution of regional for national cultural holism, see Katherine G. Morrissey, Mental Territories: Mapping the Inland Empire (Ithaca, N.Y., 1997), p. 9.
7. I am adapting this phrase from James Clifford, "Introduction: Partial Truths," in Clifford and George Marcus, eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley, Calif., 1986), p. 22. See also Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, Mass., 1988), and Victoria E. Bonnell and Lynn Hunt, eds., Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture (Berkeley, Calif., 1999). Bonnell and Hunt's introduction (pp. 1-32) is especially helpful.
8. Mark A. Peterson, The Price of Redemption: The Spiritual Economy of Puritan New England (Stanford, Calif., 1997), p. 8; David D. Hall, "Narrating Puritanism," in Harry S. Stout and D. G. Hart, eds., New Directions in American Religious History (New York, 1997), pp. 73-74.
9. Edward L. Ayers and Peter S. Onuf, eds., All Over the Map: Rethinking American Regions (Baltimore, 1996), p. 4. On the "new regional studies," see David Jordan, ed., Regionalism Reconsidered: New Approaches to the Field (New York, 1994); Glen E. Lich, ed., Regional Studies: The Interplay of Land and Peoples (College Station, Tex., 1992); and Morrissey, Mental Territories. See also the "Forum" on "Bringing Regionalism Back to History," American Historical Review 104 (October 1999): 1156-1239. The only book-length example of new approaches applied to New England is Dona Brown, Inventing New England: Regional Tourism in the Nineteenth Century (Washington, D.C., 1995). Brown's excellent book is very suggestive, as is Stephen Nissenbaum's essay "New England as Region and Nation," in Ayers and Onuf, All Over the Map, pp. 38-61. A recent art history book based on a Smithsonian exhibition also contains a few essays that might be considered examples of a new regional studies. See especially the essays by William H. Truettner in Truettner and Roger B. Stein, eds. Picturing Old New England: Image and Memory (New Haven, Conn., 1999). To date, the so-called new regional studies approach has only had a modest impact on our understanding of New England.
10. Ayers and Onuf, All Over the Map, p. 8.
11. Richard White, "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West (Norman, Okla., 1991), p. 616. I have also benefited from critiques of the "new western history" that discuss the interpenetration or merging of imagined and historic regions. See, e.g., Forrest G. Robinson, "Clio Bereft of Calliope: Literature and the New Western History," in Robinson, ed., The New Western History (Tucson, Ariz., 1998), pp. 74-75.
12. White, "It's Your Misfortune," p. 613.
13. David Jaffee, People of the Wachusett: Greater New England in History and Memory (Ithaca, N.Y., 1999), p. 17.
14. On the imagined pasts and historical narratives of community identity, see T. H. Breen, Imagining the Past: East Hampton Histories (Reading, Mass., 1989); see also Clifford, "Partial Truths." Of course, the widely cited text that explores the processes of identity formation is Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London, 1991).
15. See Richard Brodhead, The School of Hawthorne (New York, 1986), p. 5, and Breen, Imagining the Past, chap. 1.
16. For the two-hundred-year (1790-1990) trajectory of New England's population decline within the nation as a whole, see, e.g., Laurence Becker, "New England as a Region," in Jerome M. Mileur, ed., Parties and Politics in the New England States (Amherst, Mass., 1997), p. 9, and Joshua L. Rosenbloom, "The Challenges of Economic Maturity: New England, 1880-1940," in Peter Temin, ed., Engines of Enterprise: An Economic History of New England (Cambridge, Mass., 2000), p. 155.
Excerpted from Imagining New England by Joseph A. Conforti. Copyright © 2001 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Introduction: Region and the Imagination||1|
|Ch. 1||The Founding Generation and the Creation of a New England||11|
|Ch. 2||From the Americanization to the Re-Anglicization of Regional Identity, 1660-1760||35|
|Ch. 3||Regionalism and Nationalism in the Early Republic: The American Geographies of Jedidiah Morse||79|
|Ch. 4||Greater New England: Antebellum Regional Identity and the Yankee North||123|
|Ch. 5||Old New England: Nostalgia, Reaction, and Reform in the Colonial Revival, 1870-1910||203|
|Ch. 6||The North Country and Regional Identity: From Robert Frost to the Rise of Yankee Magazine, 1914-1940||263|
|Epilogue: Toward Post-Yankee New England||310|