Right now I am working through Stephen Fry in America, a fascinating survey of this wonderful civilization we have cobbled together over here in the New World. One thing Mr. Fry is constantly noting is the great diversity throughout the states. There is no denying, we are a strangle quilt of disparate peoples.
In a college that serves people from all over, discussions of differences and similarities between various American locales is bound to come up. It is interesting to me how people define not just their own local cultures, but the culture of America as a whole. For example, several of my Midwestern friends consider their region to be the generic “America.” After all, isn’t that where the movie makers like to portray such universal(ish) figures as Clark Kent and James T. Kirk?
On the other hand, I grew up around the fringes of the southern great plains, a place the natives like to call “America’s Heartland.” Then there is a local pastor who insists that all of America has been infused with New England Puritan DNA. A lot of good Southerners, especially from the Old South, will tell you that we have best preserved the American political heritage. Over in the New South, I am more likely to point to our rich musical heritage, a force which spilled out of the Appalachians and Mississippi Delta to define American culture through rock, country, blues, and every variant thereof. And many Left Coast folks are quick to tell me that Seattle has defined the last fifty years of American history, or that LA and Hollywood have been the America that the world has come to know. But what about our capital, DC? Or New York, the quintessential American city and landing place of immigrants?
Just take a look at that. People define America by religion, politics, music, movies, small towns, and big cities. Is the Deep South the most American because it is so very unique, or is the Midwest more American because it is more generic? Or take the classic question, East Coast or West? There is not really one right answer. Each of us defines America based on our own little slice of the American experience. And most of us can make quite a good case for the importance of our region and its contribution to our overall ethos. Honestly, I don’t think any of us is altogether wrong.
The fact is, America is not one thing. From the very beginning we have been big and diverse. A Bostonian at the beginning of the War for Independence was probably at least as different from a Scots-Irish backwoodsman on the Georgia frontier as he was from the redcoats they both fought. And since then, the differences have only grown greater. We are not monolithic, and that is not a bad thing. We are as diverse as the Mediterranean when Rome was through with it, and have gained as much from our commerce and justice system as they ever did.
So what is America? America is what it has always claimed to be: a union of states. America is a community of cultures under one roof, a big feast with a hundred dishes brought to the table. America is not one secret ingredient, or a formula that we can find by whittling away all the regional quirks. It is those regional quirks that make America. It is not found in one location or one group of people. Quite simply, we are all America. And that, to me, makes the whole thing more interesting.