Author's Appalachia is missing Pittsburgh

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On laptops across this country, people are looking at a new map of the United States that divides us into 11 nations, some of which slop over into Canada and Mexico.

Most of those scanning the map's quirky boundaries haven't read the book that explains it all -- Colin Woodard's "American Nations" -- but that hasn't stopped anyone from either smiling in agreement or wondering how this Woodard guy could have gotten their slice of the continent so wrong.

The map has gone viral, sparking conversations from South Florida (off the map entirely as "part of the Spanish Caribbean") to The Left Coast ("a Chile-shaped nation sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Cascade and Coast mountains").

It took me a day to reach Mr. Woodard by phone as he has been swamped with media requests. His book is two years old but his recent essay for the Tufts University magazine, showing how the incidence of violence varies by region, has bounced around cyberspace so much you'd think Miley Cyrus was involved.

I called because I thought he put Pittsburgh in the wrong place. He has us in a long belt called The Midlands, which stretches from the south Jersey shore to Kansas, just north of the region he calls Greater Appalachia.

Didn't this guy know Pittsburgh is "The Paris of Appalachia"? (I'm confident there's a book that says so.) How can a city slapped silly with Scotch-Irish names such as Carnegie and Mellon, with hills as steep as Morgantown's, not be linked to that gorgeous mountain chain that needs a better press agent?

The answer is in Mr. Woodard's regional definitions:

"Founded in the early 18th century by wave upon wave of settlers from war-ravaged borderlands of Northern Ireland, northern England and the Scottish lowlands, Appalachia has been lampooned by writers and screenwriters as the home of hillbillies and rednecks. It transplanted a culture formed in a state of near constant danger and upheaval, characterized by a warrior ethic and a commitment to personal sovereignty and individual liberty ..."

Surely, Pittsburgh has some of that in its DNA. A big slice of the Pittsburgh metro area -- Fayette, Westmoreland and Washington counties -- is indeed included in the region that Mr. Woodard takes, like Davy Crockett, clear out of the mountains and into Texas. But he put Allegheny County and the rest of the metro area in The Midlands, which he describes this way:

"America's great swing region was founded by English Quakers, who believed in humans' inherent goodness and welcomed people of many nations and creeds to their utopian colonies like Pennsylvania. ... Pluralistic and organized around the middle class, the Midlands spawned the culture of Middle America and the Heartland, where ethnic and ideological purity have never been a priority. ... An ethnic mosaic from the start ..."

Why should we care which "nation" we're in? Mr. Woodard makes a good case that hundreds of years of tradition still inform the way folks in these regions look at everything from the stand-your-ground laws to capital punishment.

When I reached him, he said that figuring the borders of a region is tough, particularly where Appalachia meets the Midlands. The latter region is polyglot by definition. But he referred to Democratic political analyst James Carville's oft-quoted observation -- Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between -- as evidence of our Midlands commonality.

Mr. Woodard, 44, had a sick 3-year-old son making noises in the background of his Freeport, Maine, home, and he'd spent the week being interviewed by everyone from NPR to BBC Radio, so we couldn't talk long.

But he said his belief in regional history as a shaper of politics goes back to when he was a young reporter in Hungary shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain. He'd rarely be long in a Hungarian steel town bar before the guy next to him would be drawing a map on a napkin to show "which parts of the neighboring country belong in the historic medieval kingdom of Hungary."

Here, we try to sort out that history through elections and state legislatures, but "cultures are not designed on straight lines."

Mr. Woodard didn't set out to sort the continent into 11 regions but "that's just how many there turned out to be." In the hardback version of the book a couple of years ago, he said, Allegheny County was "misassigned to Greater Appalachia due to my own sloppiness."

I still prefer that map.

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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