In Tune with Innovation: The "West by Southwest" Music Panel at the 2009 Western History Association Conference

Article excerpt

The South and the West in the Creation of America

BY DOUGLAS FLAMMING

From the nation's beginnings, the American South and the American West have been involved in a complicated relationship--an unpredictable, ongoing dance across time and space. The result has been that each region--or section, as Americans used to say--has played a vital role in shaping the other. To fully understand either region, we must analyze how each has influenced the other.

This task is easier said than done. For one thing, interregional analysis isn't exactly the surest path to professional security: There are no job advertisements for historians who specialize in regional studies or southern and western history. Both regions have successful historical associations that work largely in isolation: the Southern Historical Association (SHA), which was founded in 1934, and the Western History Association (WHA), founded in 1961. The Journal of Southern History and the Western Historical Quarterly naturally focus on historical dynamics within their regional scopes. Neither journal offers much information about the other region. In both southern and western historiography, regional comparisons are almost always to "America"-that is, to the North.

It would be easier to appreciate the South--West relationship if the North would fess up to being a region, a powerfully influential section of the United States that has changed dramatically over time. Alas, there is no Northern History Association. Despite some small historical societies that focus on northern subregions (New England, say), and despite scattered efforts to promote the Midwest as a candidate for regional analysis, historians of Detroit or Ohio or the mid-Atlantic states still claim to be writing "American" history. And so we are stuck with a national narrative that is out of joint; it includes two outlying regions whose separate pasts serve as foils for the story of the dominant region.

Nearly a century ago, Frederick Jackson Turner had a better idea: build a national narrative by focusing on the interrelationships among America's three major regions. I know that does not sound like Frederick Jackson Turner, but that, in the end, is where his historical studies led him. Despite the fanfare and controversy surrounding his famous Frontier Thesis, presented in 1893, Turner spent most of his career working toward what he considered a more significant outlook on American history: his Sectional Thesis, published as an article in 1925 and later included in his largely forgotten posthumous book of essays on sectionalism. (1) Turner's Sectional Thesis concludes that "the significance of the section in American history is that it is the faint image of a European nation and that we need to reexamine our history in the light of this fact. Our politics and our society have been shaped by sectional complexity and interplay, not unlike what goes on between European nations." (2)

The U.S. frontier had moved across the continent from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific, but this frontier process had given rise to three major sections of the country: North, South, and West. The West as frontier had been, Turner wrote, "a stage of society rather than a place." (3) But that was not all. Once the frontier stage had passed, it left behind distinctive sections with distinctive political and economic interests and distinctive cultures and mores. Turner's primary example of regional interplay was the Civil War. The war had been a struggle between two former frontier regions--North and South--both of which sought to control the "New West" and use it to their own advantage within the national political system. Or, in Turner's words, "Such a struggle as the slavery contest can only be understood by bearing in mind that it was not merely a contest of North against South, but that its form and its causes were fundamentally shaped by the dynamic factor of expanding sections, of a West to be won. …