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  • Becoming History: The Interwar Regionalist Movement
  • Jerrold Hirsch (bio)
Revolt of the Provinces: The Regionalist Movement in America, 1920–1945. By Robert L. Dorman. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993. 366 pages. $45.00.

At last, in the Revolt of the Provinces: The Regionalist Movement in America, 1920–1945, the interwar regionalists have found their historian. Robert Dorman’s insightful history should make it impossible to conceive of histories of twentieth-century American thought without a place for the regionalist movement. He provides an informed overview of the diverse strands of regionalism, while also locating the common impulses underlying the varieties of regionalism that flourished in the interwar years. Dorman’s analysis of the movement’s mythmaking and ideological dimensions makes it possible for him to grasp the politics of the regionalist movement and to locate the movement in relationship to other intellectual currents in American thought.

Dorman offers not only astute analyses of regionalists as diverse as Lewis Mumford, Henry Nash Smith, Carey McWilliams, Howard Odum, Walter Prescott Webb, and B. A. Botkin, but also places them in relationship to each other as part of a broader regionalist discourse. His ability to see the work of the regionalists as a response to the challenges of modernity, one to be compared to and contrasted with other such responses, provides a unifying thread in a complex story. The grand sweep of the narrative makes possible an analysis of the regionalist movement that [End Page 171] provides a window on the tensions between some major American cultural traditions and the growth of a complex capitalist economic order.

Paradoxically, regarding the relevance of regionalism for Americans today, Dorman is not directly helpful. Readers looking primarily for arguments about the continuing theoretical relevance of regionalism, discussion about the value of regionalism as an interdisciplinary methodology for studying American culture, or debates about the historical reality of American regions will be disappointed, even though they will find material in Dorman’s study relevant to their concerns. Perhaps it has been the very persistence of these discussions about whether a regionalist approach to understanding America remained relevant that explains why it has taken so long for a history of the interwar regionalist movement to appear. Is, then, the appearance of Dorman’s study a sign that the regionalist movement has finally petered out and now interwar regionalism has become a closed chapter in that history? Does his becoming history of the regionalists constitute more than an obituary for the regionalist project?

Certainly, Dorman’s account seeks to place the regionalist movement in the context of a specific time—the long moment between the two world wars when the word “rural” did not quite yet need to be used to as a modifier for a forgotten America that had vanished or had become a distinct minority. The regionalists thought they could combat the spread of a standardized industrial culture and the hierarchical relationships that spread with those developments. They also thought the folkways found in each of the nation’s regions could provide a way to preserve community in the face of the fragmenting forces of the twentieth century. Regionalists set out to recover through art and history the knowledge of America’s diverse regional pasts that would make possible the construction of rooted societies where a balance between man and nature prevailed and a communitarian ethos predominated.

Revolt of the Provinces opens with a bold “transhistorical conceit” that works (9). Dorman asks readers to “imagine a transhistorical discourse between two men of New York”—J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur and Lewis Mumford (1). In this way, Dorman hopes “to begin the task of defining regionalism” (1). He places Crèvecoeur in a long line of regionalists who view local cultures as repositories of communitarian values. In this tradition, capitalist mores and centralizing forces are seen as imperiling the existence of diverse American regional cultures. These regional cultures are also posited as a valuable alternative to the force of [End Page 172] the market place, a source of resistance to the very trends that threaten their existence.

Mumford failed to see virtue in the pioneering mentality that Crèvecoeur cherished. For Mumford the...

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