- Defining a Mid-Atlantic Region
The first time my wife heard the pop song “Hopelessly Midwestern,” she turned to me and said, “That’s you.” Looking back at the lyrics, I’m not sure she was right, except perhaps referring to the opening line, “If you live life in the middle and not on the edge, You’re hopelessly Midwestern.” Knowing I grew up in Illinois, she recognized my roots, even if I would have had a hard time describing them as lasting much beyond the curse of being a lifetime Cubs fan. Aside from a decade in New Haven in college and graduate school, I have lived my entire adult life in the Mid-Atlantic, if Washington, DC, counts as much as the Philadelphia area. Yet no one would be tempted to call me “hopelessly Mid-Atlantic.” And therein lies the problem. When we articulate regional characteristics, immediate images emerge when describing New England, the South, and the West, to say nothing of the Midwest. The Mid-Atlantic proves more problematic. Historian Carl Abbot confirms that observation, recounting his experience arriving as a middle-westerner at college in the East: “I discovered that friends from New Mexico [End Page 373] and Georgia . . . knew that they came from regions, but that friends from New York and Philadelphia did not.”1
This conundrum assumed more than simply academic proportions when I was asked as a new arrival to Rutgers’ Camden campus in 1999 to cochair with Temple University’s Morris Vogel an initiative designed to bring new humanities resources to the Mid-Atlantic states. The source of our interest was a major challenge grant, initially envisioned as being $5 million, to introduce a third level of program development, between state humanities councils and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The challenge was the brainchild of William Ferris, who before assuming the chairmanship of NEH had made a national reputation for himself as director of the Center for Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. Now he wanted to seed university-based centers in ten regions of the country based on the belief that “region inspires and grounds the American experience.” “Because Americans are so deeply immersed in their sense of place,” he declared in the introduction to each of the ten volumes on America’s distinct regions as defined by the NEH initiative, “we use region like a compass to provide direction as we negotiate our lives.”2
I had no problem embracing the importance of regionalism that drove Ferris’s vision. A long-time follower of journalist Neal Peirce’s citistate news column and an associated book, I was convinced by his argument that the main drivers of the modern American economy are the nation’s major metropolitan regions.3 At the same time, as a student of cities, I was acutely aware of the unevenness of modern development that virtually remade some areas while leaving others behind. Looking at that experience, it appeared that those in metropolitan areas were as divided among themselves as they were set apart from those living in entirely different regional settings. However much Neal Peirce nationally or Theodore Hershberg locally repeated Benjamin Franklin’s reputed warning that we best all hang together or else we hang separately, regional coherence seemed entirely allusive.4
As scholars, we bear some of the blame for that problem. As much as our forbearers, writing especially in the years following World War II, sought to identify and disseminate the essentials of American character, subsequent scholarship has focused on particulars, notably race, class, and gender. Even a professed historian of a distinct region—the West—Patricia Limerick has described regionalism as the place where scholars go to take a nap.5 If Limerick was being somewhat facetious, she nonetheless could not help [End Page 374] but recognize the considerable distance between scholarly priorities and lived realities, if Peirce is right, of those living in communities bound by formidable, if not always fully legible regional ties.
The journalist and social commentator Joel Garreau identified one reason for making the effort to form judgments about regional identity, however fluid they might prove over time. Describing how he...