"A Common Feeling": Regional Identity and Historical Consciousness in the Old Northwest, 1820-1860

Article excerpt

Regional identifies are problematic constructions. They are often as imprecise as they are subjective and as ironic as they are relative. Regions are complex cognitive and social landscapes, and the nature of regionalism has been a topic of sustained debate among historians, geographers, political scientists, and students of American literature. (1) How, in fact, does one read a region? Are regionalism and localism nothing more than pride of place? Louis Wirth described regional identity as a subjective expression of perceptual geography--place as a "state of mind" and "a sense of common belonging"--and appropriately cautioned that "regionalism as a dogma can easily degenerate into a cult." (2) Katherine G. Morrissey similarly describes regions as "mental territories," the boundaries of which are drawn by the residents themselves. (3) The individual and collective processes involved in the construction of local and regional identities are important points of inquiry regardless of their problematic nature. Region does matter in American history and culture, although there are certainly those who assert that region is overrated as a category of historical analysis. (4)

A distinct regional identity and historical consciousness emerged in the literature of the Old Northwest between roughly 1820 and 1860. (5) Spokespersons in the states created from the Northwest Territory--Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin--consistently referred to themselves as "Westerners." The common political origins of these states imparted a sense of regional identity among their residents, fostered a common set of cultural aspirations among the region's intelligentsia, and encouraged the search for a sustaining mythology about their origins. In 1827 James Hall of Vandalia, Illinois, characterized regional identity to the members of the Antiquarian and Historical Society of Illinois as "a common feeling." That sense of place and regional ethos remained intact at least until the end of the Civil War. (6) after which time the Old Northwest geographically and culturally became part of the larger and more amorphous Midwest. (7)

Not everyone shared in the sense of regional identity expressed by the Old Northwest's literary and historical writers, nor were all of the region's diverse residents included in the first historical narratives. Indeed, one is compelled to ask, how common was that "common feeling" after all? It was certainly not common to Native Americans, African Americans, or to all upland southerners. The literati of the Old Northwest were predominately either transplanted New Englanders or migrants from the Middle Atlantic states. A few local sons and daughters rounded out the ranks of poets, but most were not natives. Upland southerners vied for political power in the region, but they were not represented among the literary figures who monopolized the process of self-definition. It is difficult to determine the extent to which they shared in the regional identity invoked by transplanted easterners because their voices are not present. The division existing between upland southerners and Yankees in the political culture of the region, however, had its counterpart in the construction of regional identity. The literary culture of the Old Northwest for the most part excluded upland southerners, though less by design perhaps than as a result of the more broadly regional inclinations, interests, and orientations of the easterners (especially New Englanders) who came to dominate the creation of the region's poetry, prose, and history. The interests of the region's upland southerners, by comparison, appear to have been more local in nature and primarily centered on maintaining family networks and wielding political power in competition with the region's Yankee population. (8)

Constructions of regional identity and historical consciousness in the Old Northwest found frequent expression in the transactions of state historical societies and in the writings of poets, novelists, and historians. …