Southern Cultures 4.4 (2003) 104-105
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Nations Divided: America, Italy, and the Southern Question By Don H. Doyle. University of Georgia Press, 2002. 152 pp. Cloth $24.95
The late twentieth century witnessed a renewed scholarly interest in the issue of nationalism, generated not only by the resurgence of ethnic and religious conflicts in many parts of the world, but also by the many problems posed by the increasingly multiethnic and multiracial character of western European societies. During the same period, revisionist approaches to the history of the United States South came to maturity, prompting scholars to confront old questions in a different light, transcending national boundaries and placing their national experience in international, comparative contexts.
Don Doyle's book is a bold and successful demonstration of how one's expertise can be put to the service of a historical culture attuned to the needs of the present, global age. An historian of the American South with a first-hand knowledge of Italy, and possessed of the comparative outlook impressed on him by his scholarly training under George W. Fredrickson, Doyle has made the most of these assets.
Nations Divided examines some striking similarities of timing existing between the histories of the American and the Italian Souths—the former separating from the Union at about the same time as southern Italy was being conquered and annexed to the nascent Kingdom of Italy—to explore the nature of nationalism and also its reverse side, separatism, in two regions which, after their restoration, or inclusion, in the national fold, soon came to be perceived as "problems" of the first order.
In his reflection, Doyle discusses the birth of the United States to test the validity of the most recent interpretations of the nature of nationalism which, rejecting "primordialism" as a tenable explanation, define it instead as a cultural construction. In the case of America, Doyle finds that "shared principle and interest [End Page 104] became the main criteria for membership in the national community." Italy, however, presents a completely different set of circumstances. There, national unification brought together people with different dialects (almost different languages) and cultures, and belonging to different political entities, who did not identify themselves with the newly born Kingdom of Italy. Therefore, Italy's creation was artificial, and it took a long time and intense commitment on the part of the new state to engender a widespread sense of italianità (Italianness).
As a consequence of their opposite experiences in nation-building, the American and the Italian Souths followed two different courses in the development of a spirit of separateness. Although in the case of Italy this spirit never gave rise to attempts at secession, it did grow stronger with the passing of time. Recent political events in Italy have provoked reactions on the part of southerners against the federalist schemes of the Lega Nord (Northern League), and have encouraged manifestations of a regional pride appealing to pre-unification traditions and culture.
Pretty much the same thing happened in the American South. Perhaps, as Doyle remarks, southern nationalism did not predate secession—just like signs of a nationalist consciousness were hard to find in pre-revolutionary America—but military invasion and the common endurance of destruction and suffering certainly united the people of the South in a way that could very likely constitute the basis for the development of a fully-fledged southern nationalism.
The rights and wrongs of North and South, as both the Italian and the American cases illustrate, should not lead us into value judgements that can only fuel polemics and national divisions. Northerners were not all angels, just as southerners were not all devils, in either country. But the knowledge of being disparaged, scorned, and deemed inferior weighed heavily on both southern psyches in bringing out the worst of each region.
The nature of Doyle's comparative work necessarily entails a degree of generalization which might disappoint readers who desire to grasp all the complexities of his subject. Far from being a limit, though, this in fact constitutes a strength, for it gives cohesiveness to...