How the Other Half Lives
The following is excerpted and adapted from Chapter Five: How the Other Half Lives of my book The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Publishers, 2013). It pertains to the cultural divide reflected in our politics in 2018:
The American identity was imagined and written in New England, imagined and crafted separately by the southern white elite, and endured in the early West (from the Appalachian foothills on). The great debates of the country in the 19th century centered on the conflicting views of North and South, reaching their peak with the outbreak of the Civil War. The West, in the context of this divide, either continued to be seen as grounds for extension of the North/South conflict or was ignored. Ignored, that is, until toward the end of the century when it became the new symbol of a grand American unity, a myth crafted by the intellectual elite of New England.
While New England and New York were developing the first real American intellectual and artistic culture and the South was building its antebellum “paradise” on the backs of slaves, the white Americans of the growing West were busily engaged in a genocide that no one wanted to praise or even admit was happening. At the same time, they were eking out a living on land that often, as soon as they tried to lay claim to it, already seemed to be “owned” by someone from the East. More frequently than we imagine, they were forced once again to move farther west and start from scratch — again. Poverty breathed down their necks.