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Sectionalism and Nationalism

ISSUE:  Summer 1933

The Significance of Sections in American History. By Frederick Jackson

Turner. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $3.50. The Rise of the City, 1878-1898. By Arthur Meier Schlesinger. New York:  The Macmillan Company. $4.00.

At first glance, these two volumes seem to have little relation to each other. Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Significance of Sections” is a posthumous collection of essays, arranged by Max Farrand. They have a loose, though fairly definite, unification, in that all of them deal with the importance of sectionalism, but in the main these essays suggest fields that need both broad and intensive study; they do not furnish a complete history of any period or any section. A few articles deal with specific historical topics—for example, “Genet’s Projected Attack on Louisiana and the Floridas” — but these articles comprise the least valuable portion of the book. In contrast, Professor A. M. Schlesinger’s “Rise of the City” is a closely knit and thoroughly documented historical narrative, and is Volume Ten of the comprehensive twelve-volume “History of American Life,” edited by Dixon Ryan Fox and Mr. Schlesinger himself. Within its limited field it is complete.

In plan and in content, these two books seem far apart. But a wider view suggests that they are also excellently representative of two widely divergent schools of thought about American life. Professor Turner was the first to point out the tremendous influence of the frontier upon American life; the present volume emphasizes the fact that this country was, and is, only loosely a nation, composed less of states than of integrated regional sections. Professor Schlesinger’s book deals with the period when nationalism and standardization seemed inevitable, when the rise of the city seemed to carry with it the knell of sectionalism. He closes on a high note of unity, after the Spanish-American War, when “the foemen of 1861 had become comrades in spirit as well as in arms.” But Mr. Schlesinger sticks perhaps too closely to the narrow span of years that he treats; the apparent homogeneity has, somehow, never occurred, and the cities have in many cases become only another one of the sections that Mr. Turner treats more wisely.

Unfortunately, Professor Schlesinger does not consider the economic aspects of the years 1878-1898. That is left for Miss Ida Tarbell. But one doubts if the true significance of the rise of the city can be discussed in any other terms. The lure of the city has been with us always. Undoubtedly, the new domination of city over country represented the triumph of organized man in a collectivistic state over individual man in a democratic state; but that triumph, essentially, was an economic one. After 1865, the country changed, first slowly but by 1878 with an ever-increasing rapidity, from an agrarian and localized economy to an in-dustrialistic and highly centralized economy. And this change in our economic philosophy brought with it a change in our entire philosophy of life.

It is this second change that Professor Schlesinger undertakes to portray. But it cannot be portrayed adequately when the basic and causal forces that brought about almost a social revolution are entirely neglected.

Once this limitation is recognized, the book becomes immensely valuable. No other phase of life or of manners is neglected. Mr. Schlesinger writes with considerable understanding of the break-up of the old South into a new land of small farms and small industrial concerns, and with greater penetration of the conquest of the frontier West. But he is most at home when he describes the appeal of the city, and the physical and scientific advances that it produced. No chapter is more fascinating or more thorough than his description of woman’s part in this urban development. And he gives equally thorough attention to education, literature (as seen historically), religion, and all the habits, pleasures, and problems that were involved in this changing world. For the first time one has a rounded and complete picture of two decades that were neither brown nor mauve, as they have been sardonically described before, but were decades, rather, of a blurred and shifting color that could not be labelled for the simple reason that they were ever-changing.

Yet I feel that the picture here is not quite valid or authentic. The book has an optimistic tone with regard to this rise of a centralized and urban civilization that later developments hardly seem to warrant. Mr. Schlesinger records all the educational advances, for instance, and assumes that this I popularization was entirely good; he does not consider that in this process we lost much (perhaps more than we gained) that could not be replaced in this new system. Throughout, all that the city represents is good; all that the country represented was bad. This seems to me a highly debatable thesis: Mr. Schlesinger has painstakingly pointed out all our profits, but it would require an equally large, and perhaps more valuable, book to point out our corresponding losses.

Mr. Turner is never guilty of this over-simplification of values. In an essay on “The West—1876 and 1926,” he treats this urbanization and industrial development in a specific section, but his treatment has greater moderation, and some element of doubt as to the eternal goodness embodied in this progress. And the West remains a section, or a group of sections, that yet differ from other parts of the United States, and will for a long time resist any efforts toward complete standardization.

Each essay in Professor Turner’s book, in fact, seems to bring out or to suggest the tremendous complexity of our civilization. We have become at once more centralized and more sectional; the life of each section—personal, economic, and cultural—has become in some ways more standardized, but in many other ways more diverse. Writing of 1898, Mr. Schlesinger could see only a “momentous shift of the center of national equilibrium from the countryside to the city,” and an inevitable tendency toward national unity; Mr. Turner, writing of our immediate time, can see “degrees of sectionalism,” and nationalizing tendencies, but he also believes that “the influence of the diverse physiographic provinces which make up the nation will become more marked.” In this diversity the city must play an important, but not necessarily a dominant, part; it is, by its nature, a section also, and one that is often at war with other sections. Before we can begin to understand this country we must understand all the complex elements of which it is composed. These elements defy easy analysis, but Mr. Turner casually suggests topics for a hundred or more books that must be written before any true clarification can be secured. In the meantime, we have always before us the conflict between city and country, between localism and centralization, between agrarianism and industrialism, between section and nation, between tradition and revolution . . . and the commentator who assumes that our national life has fallen definitely into any one of these patterns must neglect the complicated realities for an unsound and deceptive thesis.


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