Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Adam Arenson, who is an associate professor of history and the director of the urban studies program at Manhattan College. He is the author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War, co-editor of Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States and Frontier Cities: Encounters at the Crossroads of Empire, and co-convener of the Writing History Seminar, and maintains a research blog at http://adamarenson.com. He thanks Megan Kate Nelson, Steve Aron, and the rest of the Civil War Wests contributors for helping him think through these issues. A version of these points was presented at the opening session of the Southern Historical Association annual meeting in St. Louis in 2013.— Ben Alpers
Notice there is no northern or eastern regional history association.
But what do these regional history associations truly study? How do they empower—or constrain—the things that their members research and discuss?
Give a group of historians (or regular citizens) a map and ask where the regions of the country start and end, and you are asking for a fight; add a historical dimension and it gets even more complicated. The new western history of the 1980s and 1990s made mainstream news in efforts to define the field’s geography, its themes, and its messages—and made U.S. western history a sought-after field, with relevance to every moment of “discovery,” conquest, or encounter. In the shorthand of the field, it became a fight about place or process—though western histories of both kinds continue to flourish.
Two decades before that, C. Vann Woodward had mused on the burden of southern history, and the inescapable way that questions of race and labor colored everything in the South—an insight that was equally important to scholars tracing the creation of racial lines and the development of labor systems around the world over the millennia.
The programs of the western and southern conferences, and the tables of contents of their journals, still reflect the power of these driving questions: the American West as a place of incorporation into the nation—of racial and ethnic “others,” new resources to be extracted, or new territory to be governed; the South as defined by the history and legacies of the enslavement of Africans, and ideologies of work and citizenship that have emphasized white and often male independence. Other papers get presented as well, of course, but a paper that addresses these driving questions in the history of the geographic region at hand still seem to predominate.
Northeastern history so often masquerades as national history, but it does have a driving question, however: the growth and transformation of markets, and the maturation of capitalism. While northeastern history does not dominate the Organization of American Historians program and journal as it once did, perhaps then the Business History Conference can be seen as a stand-in for this missing regional group (though it is younger, and its conference program is far more international in scope).
As the fledgling Midwestern History Association grows, it will be interesting to see if a driving question emerges—perhaps linked to agriculture and the environment?—and whether its identity overlaps more with the existing regional groups or another, such as the Agricultural History Society or the American Society for Environmental History. Just this week, I saw a call for scholars to help divide the Midwest from the Great Plains—with the invitation welcoming both geographic and driving-questions differences. And there are many state and local historians, with their own aggregate American Association for State and Local History.
Have we let these regional associations conflate the study of a particular geography with certain driving questions? In my own first book The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Civil War, I characterized disparate local approaches to the conflict over slavery and expansion as quintessentially western, southern, or northern, in part to make the unfamiliar western approaches to the Civil War era more prominent. In St. Louis politicians and citizens could trade among these identities, finding new compromises and new arguments that seemed to fit the times. Do scholars do the same today, moving to a new subgroup conference with each new project?
Much as scholars agree that race does not exist in reality but yet spend careers dedicated to researching the effects of that idea, I would argue that regions don’t really exist, but that those who identify as westerners, southerners, Midwesterners, Yankees, etc., nevertheless have acted based on a socially constructed regional identity, one that, like race, is able to build upon and exaggerate some real-world biological features. Regions, as much as nations, can be imagined communities.
But our study of region seems somewhat behind our critical engagement with race, or even with nation. There might have been a time when certain subjects seemed paramount in a study of African Americans, or it was important to insist their was such a thing as “Asian Americans” or “Hispanics.” Now such assertions seem preposterous, if not racist. The idea that the national character of Germans makes them unchangeably one way, and that of Greeks another, may work for op-ed writers, but less so for historians. And yet we continue to see regional histories as intertwined with certain defining questions in a matter that is due for a far more critical assessment.
I urge us to acknowledge how this overlap of geography and driving questions has shaped so much regional history, and how we can bring old questions to bear on new geographies and find new insights that change both for the better. The question of what a regional attitude can do to our understanding of history goes back at least to Frederick Jackson Turner—not just “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1894), but The United States, 1830-1850: The Nation and its Sections (1935).
The dual definition of regions by geography and driving questions is important to recognize. We can profit from both holistic histories bounded by geography, and from studies that are driven by these questions but that cross regional lines. Recent works such as Tom Sugrue’s Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North, or Julie Weise’s new book Corazón de Dixie: Mexicanos in the U.S. South since 1910, shatter these boundaries, as do histories of labor practices in the West, capitalism in the South, and environmental change in the Northeast. But sometimes they feel innovative in part because we rest too often on the regional stereotypes they fracture.
We should challenge our regionally identified organizations to consider whether they are defined more by a certain geography of study, or a “signature” driving question, or the region where the scholars live: the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association (est. 1903) and the European History section of the Southern Historical Association (est. 1955) seem to have been born out of the inconveniences in rail and air travel generations ago. Have they formulated 21st-century rationales for a continued existence?
I invite you to take these questions of how and why we care about regional U.S. history into your conference weekends, and to denaturalize how we consider region in the histories we write. It’s a discussion both a century in the making and yet still overdue.