- In Search of a Mid-Atlantic Region
For almost a century scholars and others have tried to find and understand a mid-Atlantic region and address the question of why knowing such would matter. Doing so made sense in that Americans have had a longstanding belief that local and regional characteristics were, and in some ways remain, building blocks of an American identity; however much the rise and spread of a national market and mass consumer culture in America since the late nineteenth century and the profusion and suffusion of mass media and new communications technology over the past century have eroded local and regional identities, localism and regionalism supposedly still counted for something. The last half-century of resistance to the demands of a uniform set of federal regulations regarding race relations, women’s rights, environmental controls, crime, school curriculum, and a host of social concerns bears that out. Whether opposing busing in the 1970s or LGBT rights in the 2010s, people arguing for respect for their local cultures have questioned the undergirding assumptions of the Great Society programs and their off-spring that there is a consensus on the meaning of freedom, justice, and equality that demands and justifies the imposition of national norms over local ones, and that questioning has often been grounded in the insistence that people in their localities and regions know best. The politics of recent years attests to that persistent belief. Many scholars have also assumed that regions existed as a matter of course, and whether by reason of distinctive geography and topography, economy, peopling, culture, and/or politics, they have marked off various regions to explain that most enigmatic and changeful invention–America, which exists as one out of many. In this, the emphasis has been on New England, the South, and the West, as being somehow formative and fundamental, but other regions have come into focus, and into play, in that search for the elements making up America. [End Page 85]
In thinking about the relationships between regions and nation, scholars have recognized that regions, like America, were, and are, never static or fully formed. From a Euro-American and eastern perspective, the “West,” for example, was for centuries a moving line across the continent from the piedmont and backcountry of colonial days and then across the prairies, plains, and mountains in the nineteenth century, backfilling and even moving north and south all the while along the way; and that “West” did not end with Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous observation in 1893 that the frontier line was closed, for it has extended into the Pacific Ocean with the acquisition of Hawaii. But in the search for regions, scholars and others often describe the mid-Atlantic and Midwest as being places in-between something else, supposedly half-formed or half-realized, pulled northward and southward or eastward and westward by stronger forces of history, human relations, economy, interest, and even self-regard. As such, they pose special problems of identification and saliency. This is particularly true when searching for the mid-Atlantic as a definite, definable region at any time and over time. Among the “regions,” it might be the most elusive of all.
In the search for a mid-Atlantic, writers have variously cast the region as the “motley middle,” especially in describing the colonial era of American history and in locating it between a discernible and definite New England and South; as a “borderlands” straddling the America of slavery and “freedom”; as the seedbed of “modern” America for its population diversity, industrial energy, and expansionism, among several American traits; or something else. Or nothing at all. Whatever it was, is, or is not, scholars do agree that in history and in any present iteration the mid-Atlantic has lacked the social and cultural cement of a self-conscious regionalism that holds people to place and each other as it does elsewhere. In so much as defining a region hinges on its occupants thinking of themselves in such terms, the “mid-Atlantic” comes up short. However one marks the bounds of a mid-Atlantic, people in it have not regarded themselves as of it.