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Not Yet A Placeless Land: Tracking an Evolving American Geography by Wilbur Zelinsky (review)

From: American Studies
Volume 52, Number 2, 2013
pp. 170-171 | 10.1353/ams.2013.0024

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Not Yet A Placeless Land: Tracking an Evolving American Geography. By Wilbur Zelinsky. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press. 2011.

Has the United States become homogeneous in the face of modern technology and centralized authority? This question, obviously complex and clearly important, is well suited to the talents of geographer Wilbur Zelinsky. Zelinsky, now ninety years old, has been writing about the American scene since 1950. His range of subjects has been vast, and he brings rare enthusiasm to each inquiry. The same is true here.

In simple terms, this book is an expansion and revision of ideas the author previously explored in The Cultural Geography of the United States (1973) and Nation into State (1988). More generally, it revisits all of his previous work plus that of many other scholars. Zelinsky has always been a voracious reader, and his bibliography and synopses of regional variation in everything from company towns and second homes to magazine subscriptions and place-names is arguably this volume’s most valuable contribution.

The book’s approach is empirical and inductive, “the product of a curiosity too urgent to be throttled” (xvi). It contains five major chapters plus an introduction and conclusion. The first surveys four hundred years of history, and contends that cultural diversity in this country peaked about 1780. Then came the unifying factors of a land-survey system, a railroad network, radio, advertising, and more. Such forces produced a more-or-less monolithic nation by the late 1950s. Since 1960, however, the trend is less clear with renewed immigration, loosening social ties, and a media world of “slivercasting” all adding diversity.

Zelinsky summarizes recent evidence in three chapters, one focused on the built environment and two others on cultural elements not in conflict with centralizing economic processes. The lists here are long and range from pleasuring places such as resorts and museum villages to dialect, religion, political behavior, music, and sport. [End Page 170] Although individually interesting, these stories become tedious when stretched over 125 pages and divert attention from the overall argument.

The final substantive chapter is the book’s heart. Here Zelinsky originally and concisely digests the previous information and asks whether genuine culture regions still exist in the United States. His answer is yes, but with a twist. He judges seventeen cities distinctive enough to stand alone, including Santa Fe, Savannah, and (somewhat surprisingly) Cincinnati, plus seven broader areas. Four of his regions will raise no eyebrows: Acadiana, Hawaii, the South, and the Southwest. The others are controversial. New England is on the list even though its Puritan heritage has largely dissipated, and so is Pennsylvania (Zelinsky’s home territory), whose distinctiveness is not regularly acknowledged by others. More interesting still is the replacement of the familiar Midwest and West (plus peninsular Florida) by a “Generic Euro-American” label (233–35). This region, over half the nation, is where the forces of homogenization have worked best.

Although I wished that Zelinsky had made his argument more compactly and had included many more maps than his single entry, these failings detract only slightly from an important study. Not Yet a Placeless Land deserves careful attention across the broad spectrum that is American Studies.

James R. Shortridge
University of Kansas