American Nations–A Useful and Sobering View of the History of the USA

American Nations:  A History of the Eleven Regional Cultures of North America

By Colin Woodard

Published 2011

Read May 2022

May 2022 is when this reader finished reading this enlightening and sobering book.  This reader has been working on reading this book for about a year.  Why so long?  The book is very approachable but simultaneously packed with historical information that takes time to digest.

Woodard starts with an Introduction that is very valuable to the reader.  Woodard explains his use of the term “nation”: “a group of people who share—or believe they share—a common culture, ethnic origin, language, historical experience, artifacts, and symbols”.  This differs from a “state” which he describes as “a sovereign political entity”.   He introduces the eleven nations with a brief summary of their characteristics and founding.    Having this initial snippet of each nation prepares the reader for what follows.

Part 1:  Origins 1590 to 1769 gives details of the founding of each of the following nations in order of their founding:  El Norte, New France, Tidewater, Yankeedom, New Netherland, The Deep South, the Midlands, and Greater Appalachia.  It’s sobering to note that between Jamestown and the Declaration of Independence there were about 160 years of waves of people arriving and settling in the New World with very different intentions for coming to the New World and with very different sets of values.  Those different intentions and values and intentions continue to permeate the values and aspirations of the people that live in those different areas—nations– of the country today.   

Part 2:  Unlikely Allies 1770 to 1815 is extremely interesting and helps dispute a concept we tend to have that the thirteen colonies were well unified in fighting for independence from King George.  It seems that is very far from the truth.  This account shows the waves of fighting for independence by the various nations, sometimes even their initial reluctance to do so, and sometimes actually warring against each other.  This section also covers the writing of the Constitution which is considered an amazing achievement.  It was amazing considering the very divergent views of the various nations.  In fact, some of the nations considered seceding from the union because of essentially anti-democratic aspects pushed by many we consider the Founding Fathers (who were from Tidewater).  In fact, these Founding Fathers did have an intention to suppress democracy and retain power for those like them—the elite.  It’s becoming more common knowledge that the Constitution not only allowed for slavery but prevented its abolishment for twenty years.  This was clearly a period of substantial conflict between the nations. 

Part 3:  Wars for the West 1816-1877 covers yet the continuing turbulent time, this section lasting over fifty years.  Yankeedom, the Midlands, The Deep South all spread westward with different intentions consistent with the values held by each of the nations.  Yankeedom needed more land for farming so communities of families headed west, just as communities of families had first come to the New World.  They established new towns, taxed themselves to build needed infrastructure, especially schools.  Overtime the religious orthodoxy of Yankeedom was eroded but the values of serving community remained well entrenched.    The Midlands moved west as well and recreated the towns and communities from which they migrated.  They were accompanied by a large immigration from Germany.  Although they shared the community-focused trait of Yankeedom, The Midlands were more heterogeneous in religious practices and were untroubled by diversity although “skeptical of slave labor, warfare, and the cult of the individual”.  The Borderlanders of Appalachia travelled west largely to live beyond the effective reach of government.  They left not in communities but rather as individuals or very small groups.  An interesting comparison of Yankeedom and the Borderlanders is given. Only a small part of it is recited here:  Yankeedom Midwesterners put their homes on the road, used written contracts, and buried their dead in town graveyards. Appalachian Midwesterners built their homes in the middle of their plots, negotiated verbal, honor-bound agreements, and put their relatives to rest in family plots or isolated graves.  The Borderlanders also preferred candidates who advocated for ordinary people and perceived Yankee neighbors as meddlesome and threatening to their individual freedom.  The slave culture of Tidewater was mainly hemmed in by Appalachia and lost some of its power over time.  It and the second/third-born sons of English gentry that founded it had been a dominant force when the Constitution was written.  The slave culture of The Deep South spread westward expanding its cotton economy which required a substantial slave population and which fed the demands of textile mills in both  New England and Old England.  “What others regard as an authoritarian society built on an immoral institution that concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a small elite, Deep Southern oligarchs viewed as the pinnacle of human achievement.  Theirs was a democracy modeled on the slave states of ancient Greece and Rome, whose elites had been free to pursue the finer things in life after delegating all drudgery to slaves and a disenfranchised underclass.”

An extremely interesting chapter in this section “War for the West” details the build up to the Civil War and describes it not as a struggle between “the North” and “the South” but rather a conflict between two coalitions.  One side was the Deep South and Tidewater.  The other side was Yankeedom.  The other nations considered breaking off and forming their own confederations “freed from slave lords and Yankees alike.”  The United States nearly broke into four pieces.  But for the attack on Fort Sumter which coalesced the coalitions, history might be very different.

Part four:   Culture Wars:  1878 to 2010 covers the topics of the Founding of the Far West, Immigration and Identity, Gods and Missions, Culture Clash, War/Empire/Military, and two chapters on the Struggle for Power—the Blue, Red, and Purple Nations.  Viewing these topics through the lens of American Nations gave this reader a new perspective on this part of our (always turbulent!) history as well.

The Epilogue chastens us to recognize that the United States is actually fairly fragile.  “A time might come that the only issue on which the nations find common ground is the need to free themselves from one another’s veto power.  Perhaps they’d join together on Capitol Hill to pass laws and constitutional amendments granting more powers to the states or liquidating may of the functions of the central government.”  (The author doesn’t suggest the Supreme Court might expedite this but over the last few days it seems that’s its intention.)  The author indicates a few paths that might be followed as the country splits into parts, consistent with the “respective national heritages”.   To remain the United States, “The United States needs its central government to function cleanly, openly, and efficiently because it’s one of the few things binding us together.”  

While we may think the current state of our government is unusual and that we’ve had stability for two hundred plus years, this book actually highlights how turbulent the history of the United States of American has actually always been and continues to be.  The path forward is not easy to predict but the author’s call to “respect the fundamental tents of our unlikely union” is very relevant. 

This reader is recommending this book to friends and family—it should be read by all those wishing to understand the current state of the USA.

A Canticle for Lebowitz: A Timely Classic

A Canticle for Leibowitz

By Walter M. Miller Jr.

Published 1959

Read Feb 2022

It is not surprising to this reader that the book has never gone out of print since its first publication in 1959.   This reader listened to an audiobook version and read a hard copy.  This reader was in college when she first read this book which was coincident with negotiation of SALT II—a treaty to reduce the likelihood of annihilation of the world by nuclear weapons.  As this reader finished reading the book this time, the world is working again to avoid nuclear war while the Putin’s invasion of Ukraine continues. 

Miller’s remarkable book has three parts, apparently originally written separately and then rewritten a bit to draw them together into one novel (1).  The first part, Fiat Homo (“Let There Be Man”) takes place 600 years after a global nuclear war (The Great Flame Deluge) that was rapidly followed by a backlash against knowledge and technology known as The Simplification. Shortly after The Simplification, the Albertian Order of Leibowitz was founded by Isaac Edward Leibowitz, an electrical engineer who had survived the war and who became a monk after he was unable to locate his wife who was presumed dead.  600 years after its founding, the monks residing at the abbey continue to work tirelessly to carry out the mission of their founder—to preserve books via memorization, copying, and careful storage of said Memorabilia.   The second part—Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light”) is set 600 years later as the world is beginning to come out of the dark ages following The Simplification.  Both outside and inside the abbey there are people who are rediscovering fundamental knowledge necessary to build such things as arc lamps.  Simultaneously, war between nation states is brewing.  The third part—Fiat Voluntas Tua (“Let Thy Will Be Done”) is set another 600 years later.  Much of the technology present during the Great Flame Deluge, including space flight and nuclear weapons, again exists.  As the section opens, there has been 50 years of potential nuclear war but the brink hasn’t yet been breached. 

In each part there is an interesting set of characters—the Abbott of the Abbey, a Brother in the Abbey, and someone else.  In Fiat Homo, the story opens as Brother Francis Gerard of Utah is enduring a Lenten vigil in the desert near some ruins and a “pilgrim with girded loins” comes by.  The unidentified old man identifies a rock for Brother Francis to use in building a shelter to protect him from the wolves while he sleeps.  Behind the rock is a metal door that leads to a bomb shelter.  This section then follows what happens after Brother Francis reveals his findings and his encounter with the “pilgrim with girded loins” to the priest visiting vigilantes to receive their confessions.  Much speculation springs up in the Abbey regarding who the pilgrim might be (is it Isaac Edward Leibowitz himself??)  Abbot Arkos works to mitigate the impact of the encounter on the canonization of Isaac Edward Leibowitz who had previously been beatified.  Monsignor Aguerra (God’s Advocate in the canonization process) and Monsignor Flaught (the Devil’s Advocate in the canonization process) join the cast of characters and visit the Abbey from their home base in New Rome (in an unidentified part of North America).  

In Fiat Lux, Thon Taddeo, a scholar and a bastard cousin of Hannegan, leader of Texarkana, wishes to review the Memorabilia at the Abbey of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz.  He engages Marcus Apollo, diplomat from New Rome to Texarkana, to beseech Abbot Dom Paulo to have the Memorabilia transferred to New Rome so he can study it.  Of course, that request is denied and Thon Taddeo eventually goes to the abbey to study the documents.  Brother Kornhoer demonstrates an arc light that he has built in the basement based on his study of the Memorabilia and some of Thon Taddeo’s writings.  Thon Taddeo is quite amazed that a mere monk could create such an invention but is certainly happy to use it to see the Memoribilia by the arc lamp’s light vs only candles. 

Much of this second section involves intrigue around Hannegan’s intentions to expand his empire.  The author also, however, spends a chapter on a discussion between Abbott Dom Paulo and an old hermit, known as Benjamin and whom Dom Paulo calls an Old Jew.  Apparently the two men have enjoyed spirited discussions over the years.  In this chapter they speak about the differences in their spiritual faiths (the Three and the One), whether or not a new Renaissance is going to dawn, and what a new dawn might mean to the Abbey.   Benjamin claims to have been waiting for Him to come for thirty-two centuries which Dom Paulo doesn’t believe.  But, Benjamin also claims to be the man Brother Francis met six centuries previous and who buried him when he was killed on the road from New Rome and who told the abbey where to find his remains… who is he really? 

In Fiat Voluntas Tua, Abbot Zerchi oversees the greatly expanded Abbey.  The modern addition is across a busy highway from the original Abbey and there is an underpass that allows foot travel between the two.  Two superpowers have been in a cold war situation for the last fifty years and the brink of war is being crossed.  Abbot Zerchi receives an order from New Rome to proceed with a plan to send the Memorabilia and persons from the Abbey to join others who will all go to Alpha Centuri to start anew.  He works to convince Brother Joshua to agree to become a priest and spiritual leader for the trip. 

While there are some pretty dark moments in the book, including violent deaths of individual characters, the need for Mercy camps to identify individuals whose exposure to fallout means certain death, and Zerchi’s regular encounters with Mrs. Graves who has a second head growing from her shoulder, there are some wonderful bursts of comedy as well.  In section one, Brother Francis’s bumbling confessions and his discussions with Abbot Akros are quite funny at times.  In section two, the dinner Abbot Dom Paulo gives for Thon Taddeo is crashed by the Abbey’s not fully welcomed guest, The Poet, which provides wonderful comedy.  In the third section, Abbot Zerchi’s attempts to use the “Abominable” Autoscribe (which automatically translates input to the desired language) to dictate memos are quite amusing as are the Q&A sessions between reporters and the defense minister as he fields questions about rumors of nuclear tests. 

Some of the themes are quite universal and enduring including:  1) man’s desire to seek knowledge and create new technologies; 2) the desire of some to hold power over others and expand their empires at all costs; 3) man’s general inability to learn from the past despite the magnitude of the lessons; 4) religions, here in the form of the Catholic Church, will be ever-lasting and add value to the world despite their imperfections.    Miller’s work is quite impressive.  It was commercially successful as he uses engaging characters, wonderful dialog, occasional humor, and overall great writing to weave these ideas into a story that attracts a wide range of readers.

Miller (2) was trained and worked as an engineer.  During World War II he was a radioman and tail gunner and flew over fifty bombing missions in Europe.  The Benedictine Abbey at Mount Cassino was founded in AD529 and was suspected to be a garrison and ammunition storage area for the Germans so it was a target taken out in a mission that Miller flew.  After the war, Miller converted to Catholicism (2).   He wrote over three dozen short stories published in science fiction magazines.  After the success of A Canticle for Leibowitz, he withdrew from public and became a recluse.  A book he was working on when he committed suicide in 1996, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was finished as he requested by a friend and published in 1997.  It’s likely that Miller suffered from PTSD as a result of his bombing missions and especially the one involving the Abbey at Mount Cassino (1). 

This reader wonders if this book should be on (or return to) the reading list for high school students.

The Color of Water

The Color of Water:  A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother

By James McBride

Published 1995

Read Feb 2022

The Color of Water is this reader’s first exposure to James McBride, mainly because it was the only e-book or audiobook by McBride that was available for take out in this reader’s library system.  All of the other McBride books had waiting lists. 

The Color of Water is partly a biography of McBride’s mother, partly a memoir of McBride’s life, and certainly meant to be a tribute to his remarkable mother as noted in the subtitle.  This reader listened to this book which was a great way to read it as McBride wrote chapters that are in his voice and chapters that are in his mother’s voice and the audiobook used a man’s voice for McBride and a woman’s voice for his mother. 

James McBride knew his story.  He knew he was the eighth child born to Ruth McBride of twelve total and the last one whose father was Dennis McBride.  Dennis McBride died of lung cancer before he was born.  He knew his mother subsequently married Hunter Jordan, who raised Ruth’s children as his own and with whom she had four more children.  He knew his mother embraced Christianity and that Dennis McBride and his mother started a church.  He knew his mother valued education and the (Christian) church above all else and while they lived in Red Hook, a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn. She had sent her children to public schools in Jewish neighborhood where she was sure that learning was a priority.  He knew his mother mourned two husbands and somehow managed to keep all the children in school and food on the table despite great obstacles.  He knew all of his siblings went to college and half of them went to graduate or professional post-grad school.  He knew his skin and that of his siblings was dark, that they lived in black neighborhoods, and that his mother had light skin.  He knew she never spoke of race and, when asked, said God was The Color of Water, neither white nor black.  He knew she never spoke of her parents or family.

What James McBride didn’t know was who his mother really was.  After he had graduated from Oberlin College and was a journalist, he convinced her to talk to him about her past.  He anticipated the exercise would take a few sessions but it actually took eight years—her story was only very slowly revealed to him.  He eventually learned that his mother was the daughter of a failed Orthodox rabbi who did not successfully keep a job as a rabbi in a synagogue.  He opened a store in the last town in which he was employed as a rabbi.  The town was an anti-Semitic and racist small southern town.    He set up the store in a black section and overcharged and otherwise misused his patrons.  McBride learned that his mother’s father was sexually abusive to his mother and her sister.  Her mother’s father mistreated his wife, cheated on her, and raised a second family while remaining legally wed to his mother.  We learn that Ruth’s name was actually Rachel but she gave up that name when she gave up her family to live in New York City.  He learned that she felt most at home in the company of blacks and she embraced her husband’s Christian religion, both of which fully separated her from her family.  McBride tells a moving story of his mother’s challenges and of her triumphs and how she set twelve children on exceptional paths. 

James McBride eventually became a successful writer and musician but only after narrowly escaping a life of crime and drugs that he started towards while a teenager.  He landed an acceptance to Oberlin College.  After graduation he tried his hand at journalism for several years but eventually decided he could be both a musician and a writer.

While this reader is not usually a fan of memoirs, this is a very special one.  McBride found a truly engaging way to reveal his story, that of his mother, and how he worked through his identity as a mixed-race person.  In the end he comes to understand that his mother’s relentless focus on education and church instilled in him and his siblings that learning and finding a way to serve others is really much more important than the race box you are required to check on too many forms.  This reader looks forward to getting notification that his books are available for me to read.