Party of One: Show Me the Way to Go Home

Can it be that regionalism in America is declining in the same way that patriotism has—that it is more noisily insisted upon, but by fewer and fewer people? It used to be a peculiarly American trait to brag on where you lived. The most aggressive of these geographical chauvinists would extol their climate and belittle everyone else’s, would rhapsodize over the outdoor beauty to be found close at hand, and would solemnly assert that their region molded people of superior character.

I know that attitude well, since I myself come from God’s country. Those wide open spaces out West were thought to broaden your horizons even if they only left you with an unfocused, far-off stare. Being spread out was supposed to make you more self-reliant. We pitied the herded eastern cities with their squalid political machines, and persuaded ourselves that we were the true, think-for-yourself democrats.

And when critics came along and said that all our Main Streets looked alike, with a Woolworth’s here and an A&P there, we thought they were judging merely by externals, and had missed what was stubbornly individual in us. We could have our cake mixes and eat them too, without jeopardizing our Garden of Eden. I don’t believe that anymore.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I acknowledged valuable mutations in the American character: the confident, blond handsomeness of Californians, sure that they were the first citizens of tomorrow; New England Yankees, spare of speech and honed down physically to survive in that dour rocky land; Texans at home with expansiveness; Virginians who had saved a grave courtesy from the ruins. But how about people from other, more anonymous places, like Arkansas or West Virginia, who seemed less eager to brag on their origins? How could people in those bleak, sooty mill towns stay even another day in them? Then I discovered the satisfaction people take in the sheer unlivability of their circumstances, I remember a Texan saying, “God wasn’t very mad when he made this part, but he sure lost his temper in other parts of Texas.”

Such perverse pride in surviving an alien and harsh environment I have come to understand, after living thirty years in New York City. I once thought that sanity triumphed as each decade’s census showed the center of population moving ever westward. I now think it is decadent old New York City that is ahead of the country, by adapting so effortlessly to the way of the futuremass turnstile living. This Darwinian adaptation explains that impersonal behavior in New Yorkers which roils outsiders.

True New York courtesy consists in holding open the rear door of the bus for the person who follows you—a service rendered without establishing contact or invading privacy. Such economy of effort, I grant, also accounts for other familiar New York behavior, such as that of surly, indifferent waiters and slovenly, querulous cabbies. But then, if you allow for a certain pressurization, caused by New York’s harried pace, I believe that meanness of character is not more prevalent there but is pretty evenly distributed in the population at large. I’ve never shared Oscar Hammerstein’s mawkish admiration for small-town virtues, which led him. in Allegro, to write lyrics of even more undiluted bathos than those in his dreadful “You’ve Got to Be Taught” number in South Pacific.

For, among small-town tradespeople, how much does politeness merely reflect the pragmatic knowledge that they expect to see you again soon? In New York’s turnstile economy, volume is everything; the newsie is indifferent to your particular presence, and don’t waste his time. Now that volume discount houses and supermarkets as big as aircraft hangars crowd the highway strips outside most American cities, girls at the check-out counters— brought up in small towns and healthy suburbsare adopting the same turnstile manner without having had the benefit of on-the-spot training in New York. The fact of impersonal relationship, not geography, determines the behavior.

I would argue that regionalism in America today exists mostly as a fact of nature and climate. Among man-made things, it survives mainly in parody. And in people it persists more as sentimental illusion, a pride of memory, than as distinctiveness of character. America has lost the battle to the common ooze spread by giantism.

The forces that mold us as a nation are now more powerful than those that differentiate us by regions. Big businesses big supermarkets to handle their wares, big television budgets to clear their shelves—depend at every stage on efficient uniformity. Let any enterprising local owner of a highway fast-food franchise try to vary his menu by adding a regional specialty, and he’ll get a quick rocket from headquarters to stop that nonsense—everything must be similar from Bellingham to Key West, or the customer would feel disoriented.

Of course, if a wanderer through America feels the need to savor local atmosphere, he can, for a price, subject himself to roadside inns which flaunt a halfhearted and usually spurious regionalism—from fake beams to cutesy menus full of shipahoy gabble about Gloucester fish or chuck-wagon metaphors to sanction the toughness of the beef. (Often the only discernible linkage between a roadside Colonial tavern and its Revolutionary past is the conviction that the dollar isn’t worth a continental.)

Just as much a parody of the past, though more endearing, are those one-day festivals in mid western small towns where local high school girls put on wide smiles and Swiss dirndls or Dutch wooden shoes to celebrate their ethnic origins. Actually, true ethnic survival in America depends on the much tougher proposition that “I’m not inferior; I count too; you must reckon with me.” This attitude is more deeply felt and more insistent than any regionalism is. Challenging a man’s regionalism just does not touch him to the quick anymore. You don’t have to smile, podner, when you confront a Virginian; his suburbs are much like yours. Nor is he any longer instructed that, for politeness’ sake, he must “never throw up to a Yankee the fact of his birthplace.”

Even the touristy landmarks of any region seem diminished now, and not just by being surrounded and overwhelmed by souvenir stands and litter. They are diminished by accessibility, as Samarkand and Xanadu are. Those brave parents who—scorning the convenient plane—crisscross the American West with their children, journeying from camper site to Indian battleground, may travel in monotonous ease across expanses of tableland ringed by mountains, but at least they get some transitional sense of the agonizing distance and receding horizons of those who, in creaky Conestoga wagons, journeyed into the unknown a century earlier.

But how often the historical site itself then disappoints. Out the families scramble from their cars, weary from the close quarters. Then watch mother and father trying to summon up, first in themselves and then in their children, a sense of what happened here: Imagine, children, how on this very spot Indians once stealthily crept up on the peaceful campfires. The children stare, but see only a stone marker and a bronze tablet which looks too wordy to read. The ooze has got to them first. They’ve seen the spectacular of it, in movie or television dramas, and what does it matter if the locale has been shifted to a more imposing landscape? Soon it won’t be necessary to travel such distances to see dispersed artifacts. Those convenient cultural conglomerates, our proliferating Disneylands, tidily bring together in one place Wild West towns, antebellum mansions, Mississippi riverboats, or roadside jungles stocked from elsewhere. After moving comfortably from one such dollop of recreated history to another, it’s but a short ride back to the motel swimming pool.

But nature itself has not been successfully parodied. And it can be argued that only where people take their living directly from nature — in plowing the fields, mining the gullies, or fishing the seas—does regionalism any longer bestow its lasting imprint on character. Just try to discover in an aerospace engineer, or an accountant, any strong distinctiveness because he works in a Houston suburb rather than on the outskirts of Knoxville or Tacoma.

He is probably part of that great moving mass, the 20 percent of all Americans who change where they live every year. He may have been transferred by the armed forces, or by a large corporation; he goes to work in a glass grid of the kind that makes every city a mini-Manhattan, or in one of those tidy plants at the edge of town, surrounded by a few nursery trees and an acre of shining metal—parked cars reflecting the sun. Such transients become wise in marginal advantages: in Scarsdale the schools are better; in Denver you can ski on weekends.

But the real distinctions between regions grow fewer as people no longer live in isolated and narrow cultures on which the outside world only rarely impinges. Even the Old South that once made a literary eloquence out of the bonds of defeat now resounds with the affirmative business aggressiveness of the New South, the kind that used to be deplored as northern materialism.

All of us, in our millions, who began there and ended here, have our passports heavily stamped by elsewheres. We have not only become victims of the ooze but are carriers of the virus. We bunch together in cities and expanding suburbs where the market strategists—those students of similarity and harbingers of uniformity—can have at us easily. In their corporate boardrooms, and on Madison Avenue, they don’t look at the familiar map of the fifty states as we do, as a variegated, historysanctioned collection of contraries. They focus instead on densely populated clots—the kind that the government calls Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas—and have so studied the “A and B Counties” of city and suburb that they are experts in how most cheaply to reach the masses who buy cornflakes, or to single out those families, known as “upscale in income and education,” who can be sold brand-name Scotch and elaborate sound systems. Everyone’s level of sophistication, earnings, and schooling has been efficiently calibrated, and if you get your regional charts right, the same dollar-rated entertainers will be admired to the same degree, and the same products will sell best.

If, as the song goes, everything’s up-to-date in Kansas City, it will be equally so in Phoenix and Indianapolis. In sports, promoters freely shift football and basketball franchises around, the better to assemble the most desirable markets for national television advertisers. Your local team will be encouraged to adopt a name that suggests instant tradition (another example of regionalism surviving as parody), so what does it matter if the team is owned, managed, and stocked with players from the outside? Many of the customers in the stands are from the outside too, and can take on a protective coloration by cheering the local team. It’s the secular equivalent of joining the local church.

We have all been made more similar than we like to admit. At best, we hold dual citizenship: in the place of our origins, and in a nationalized culture which is in part political but mostly a shared community of experiences, references, entertainments, celebrities, and the commercial inundation not only of products but of their sell, made familiar to us in insistent melodies— all of this giving us not so much a national outlook as a common subjection to a homogenous palaver. But something stubbornly sentimental in us makes us insist on our regionalism, and we prize it when we hear it in the lazy cadences of speech, or see it in idiosyncratic mannerisms. The great American question is “Where you from?,” and however much we move about, most of us find our true lifetime identity wherever in the isolation of childhood we first discovered our own universe. The place of our roots dominates even when those roots have been severed. When asked where I’m from, I never say New York, though I have lived there half my life.

Not long ago, returning to my native Pacific Northwest, I was anxious to see how well it had escaped the effluvium that pours from the smokeless chimneys of Madison Avenue and from the television glass booths of Rockefeller Center, how much it had escaped the banalization of America and the spreading uniformity. In neighboring Oregon, Governor Tom McCall has been telling people that Oregon is a nice place to visit, but please don’t move there. Some of the wiser spirits in my hometown of Seattle are learning to think small too. But nature’s invitation is still writ large— the Cascades and Olympics that ring Seattle were sharp and clear, though less snow-clad than I remember. Mount Rainier hovered spectacularly over the city, cold and strong. Its serenity awes the stranger, but to Seattleites the mountain is such a familiar that they cannot be reverent about Rainier all the time. So we talked about how much the mountain looked like a giant heap of vanilla ice cream. Then, as we watched the rays of the setting sun strike the mountain’s flanks, it turned strawberry color before our eyes.

I asked Miner Baker, a banker — economist friend of mine, whether northwesterners still brag as much as they used to about God’s country. He thought not; most had traveled and seen other places, superior in some ways if inferior in others. Quiet satisfaction was more like it, he thought, along with some worry. For Washington State, which once seemed inexhaustible in its unspoiled green scenery and rich resources that were anyone’s to despoil, had felt the threat to its environment. And this had come with a barrage of rhetorical overkill that is in itself a kind of verbal littering. Still, the mood is that we’ve got to hang on to what we’ve got.

If this is the new regional chauvinism, I prefer it to the old brag. If we can’t preserve regional man in all his isolated innocence and independence. we can still preserve regional nature.