The Anglosphere in America

by Peter Saint-Andre


Almost a generation before David Hackett Fischer published Albion's Seed in 1991, cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky wrote a book entitled The Cultural Geography of the United States (Prentice-Hall, 1973). While Albion's Seed is six times longer and much more detailed, Zelinsky's treatment is still of interest.

From the Anglospheric perspective, Zelinsky emphasizes that America is memetically downstream from Britain (p. 5):

Basic to this entire discussion is the premise that the United States belongs to the Greater European cultural realm, and that in all essentialls our culture is derived from that of Northwest Europe and, most particularly, of Great Britain. This is not to claim that non-British or non-European sources have not contributed to the peculiar American cultural blend, for they obviously have, but simply to assert the powerful genealogical fact that British cultural parentage underlies all else.

And (pp. 9-10):

It cannot be said too often that the means whereby American culture acquired its present form are not peculiar to this part of the world, or that this national pattern is by no means unique. On the contrary, it is useful to classify the United States as a member of a rather large set of countries: the neo-European lands whose culture, population, or both were derived from European sources and implanted successfully at some distance from the homeland, beginning in about 1500 A.D. More specifically, the United States can be viewed as belonging to either of two intersecting subsets of this larger group: a Western Hemisphere area, taking in all of the Americas; or that scattered collection of countries that might be labeled neo-British, namely Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Rhodesia [ed: this was 1973!], and perhaps Eire, the British West Indies, Bermuda, and the Falklands, in addition to the United States.

The identification of a Pan-American cultural realm is hazardous. Aside from whatever fusion of ideas and behavior might result from a non-too-great spatial propinquity and a certain parallelism in political and settlement history, it is hard to put one's finger on cultural features shared by Anglo-America and Latin America [ed: see The New World of the Gothic Fox by Claudio VĂ©liz]....

The existence of the neo-British cultural community is too obvious to be argued. Despite great spatial intervals, locations in frequently dissimilar habitats, and envelopment within strikingly alien indigenous and immigrant groups, the family ties and continuities of these sibling countries persist. If ever there were a ready-made laboratory situation for the cultural geographer, here it is....

Yet despite the fact that early immigration to America was overwhelmingly from the British Isles and especially from England (see D.F. MacDonald, "The Great Migration", in C.J. Barlett, ed., Britain Pre-eminent), America is not England. Indeed, Zelinsky notes that "if one glances at some of the more extreme forms of American cultural development and then compares them with developments in England past or present, any immediate kinship may be difficult to detect. How, then, did American culture come to be what it is today?" (p. 5). Zelinsky proposes five factors for investigation:

  1. "The importation of selected individuals and, hence, selected cultural traits." (See below.)
  2. "The simple fact of long-distance transfer of people and their cultural freight." -- "The abrupt relocation of people across great distances inevitably generates cultural changes, however zealously the immigrants may try to prevent such changes."
  3. "Cultural borrowings from the aboriginal populations." (Zelinsky admits that this was a "minor factor".)
  4. "The local evolution of American culture." (See below.)
  5. "A continuing interchange with other parts of the world."

As to the first factor, Zelinsky notes that those who left their native lands for America were different (pp. 11-13):

Even though we cannot decipher too many specific items on that crucial early bill of lading of cultural exports from Europe to America, one outstanding conclusion emerges from fragmentary, indirect evidence: the bearers of this culture were not in any sense a representative sample of the people back home. Instead, we find migrants selected, through external circumstances or by themselves, for specfic qualities. The movement of Old World natives to the United States -- by all odds the largest migrational shift in human history -- was largely spontaneous and uncontrolled. Only in the last few decades, and too late to be of decisive effect, has there been any official screening and rejection of entrants. Although a great mass of public and private documents could be mined to ascertain the kinds of people who decided to hazard their fortunes in America, their motivations, and the processes of selection, to date historians and others have barely begun this monumental chore. However, even the present-day demographer, working with voluminous current data and with living informants who can be tested in great depth, confronts severe problems in measuring motivations or in interpreting differentials in skills, intelligence, and personality traits as between migrants and stay-at-homes or among various categories of migrants. Although selectivity is, and has been, of major import, it need not be simply slanted in one direction, nor is it invariant through time and space.

What, then, was unusual, or nonrandom, about those immigrants who came to be the makers of American culture? First of all, as with almost any modern, long-distance migrational stream, the immigrants were largely young adults, sometimes accompanied by children, and a disproportionate number were male. And, as is also characteristic of most contemporary voluntary movements, they came in the main as single families or individuals rather than in larger groups, although clusters of kinfolk or former neighbors would frequently arrive sequentially in a "chain migration".... There was probably also some bias in the recruitment of migrants as between urban and rural areas; the city folk may have been overrepresented, but perhaps not consistently....

One plausible generalization is that, contrary to popular belief, poverty was not the chief spur driving the hopeful across the ocean (except, of course, for such panic migrations as followed the Great Potato Famine in Ireland). More probably, a certain critical threshold of incipient affluence, and the appetite for even more, had to be breached before passage was booked....

We reach much more solid ground in treating the religious composition of the transplanted Europeans. Quite clearly, the immigrants tended to favor the aberrant creeds, whether of the theological left or right. Thus we find gross overrepresentation in colonial America of such non-establishment groups as the Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Quaker, Mennonite, or Moravian, and perhaps British and German Baptists; and virtually all the French minority in the American colonies were Huguenot. There is much more to such a strong incidence of churchly dissent than may meet the eye. Adherence to such "fringe" groups no doubt reflected, and reinforced, certain nonmodal personality types and, it is not too bold to assume, deviant political procilivities....

Quite possibly the American settlers may have deviated in personality structure to a significant degree, but in complex ways, not always in the same direction, from those they left behind. The existence of a distinctive American national character would indicate either that such an entity reflects the cumulated propensities of just such individuals, who gave American culture its decisive early twist, or that the peculiar conditions of early American life would have led to the same end in any event, or, more plausibly, that some convergence of these factors took place. That is, a rather special cohort of immigrants interacted with one another and a novel physical and socioeconomic setting to form a strikingly similar new culture.

Determining the nature of the first American settlers (who we can differentiate from later immigrants to an existing if evolving society) is crucial because the cultural geography of settlement exhibits important similaries to the "founder effects" found in the biological sciences (p. 6) or the psychological phenomenon of imprinting (p. 13). Zelinsky thus expounds what he labels the "Doctrine of First Effective Settlement" (pp. 13-14):

Whenever an empty territory undergoes settlement, or an earlier population is dislodged by invaders, the specific characteristics of the first group able to effect a viable, self-perpetuating society are of crucial significance for the later social and cultural geography of the area, no matter how tiny the initial band of settlers may have been. As an obvious corollary to this statement, we can ignore nonviable experiments, for example, the Raleigh group in North Carolina or some ephemeral shore parties in pre-Puritan New England and elsewhere. Thus, in terms of lasting impact, activities of a few hundred, or even a few score, initial colonizers can mean much more for the cultural geography of a place than the contributions of tens of thousands of new immigrants a few generations later. The history of the northeastern United States clearly illustrates how indelibly the early colonial patterns have marked its cultural landscape.

That said, the original culture did evolve. Old cultural baggage (e.g., feudalistic attitudes) was more or less quickly dropped, whereas other traits gained renewed importance (e.g., hunting). Cultural groups that were not in close (or positive) contact in the Old World were thrust together in the New World: even though the English, Welsh, Scots, Danes, French, Swedes, Norwegians, Germans, and Dutch may seem quite similar to us from today's more global vantage-point, at the time they probably felt much different than they do today (and they had never been forced by circumstances to work together). As Zelinsky notes (p. 8), "this spatial juxtaposition in America of social and ethnic groups that had been widely separated in the Old World led spontaneously to cultural interchange and the diffusion of old and new ideas and thus must have contributed materially to the forging of the special American identity." As North America was settled and explored, its sheer size, wildness, and natural resources impressed themselves upon the minds of its new inhabitants, probably inculcating a kind of innate ambition and scale of effort. The distance of America from the imperial powers of Europe also played a large role -- the Americans were separated from Europe not by the 30 miles of the English Channel but by 3000 miles of ocean. Etc.

So what was the cultural result of the massive, mostly voluntary migration of thousands and then millions of ambitious, dissenting, hustling, quite possibly abnormal young men, women, and families from northwestern Europe, especially the British Isles, and most especially England, to the huge, wild, isolated, far-away continent of America? According to Zelinsky, it is an intensely individualistic culture (even when compared to other parts of the Anglosphere) that places an extremely high valuation on social mobility, economic progress, and technological change; that is characterized by a kind of achievement-oriented, mechanistic world view in which anything and everything can be fixed and improved; and that is driven by the idea that America is not just another nation among nations but that it has a special mission to play in realizing and spreading the dream of human freedom and progress. Zelinsky explores these facets through a necessarily brief examination of American folkways, economics, government, religion, education, settlement patterns, and the like, but he does so mainly to encourage future research rather than to provide an exhaustive treatment of American culture (the second half of his book, which I do not discuss here, provides some suggestions for the study of American regions). Zelinsky thus points the way to the massive research project of David Hackett Fischer, but also leaves plenty of cultural territory unexplored (e.g., similarities and differences across the U.S.-Canadian border). In all, The Cultural Geography of the United States, despite its small scope and somewhat dated perspective, provides valuable food for thought for Anglosphereans in America and elsewhere.

(Cross-posted at Albion's Seedlings.)

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