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Editor’s Note, July/August 1999

A Sense of Place

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, July/August 1999 | Volume 20, Number 4

Every year forty-three million Americans pull up stakes and move on. The search for something better dates back to the earliest days of the country, from Indians traversing the Great Plains to find more buffalo, to immigrants crossing the Appalachians in search of land, to adventurers chasing beyond the Rockies for gold. But in the course of it, paradoxically, we Americans have become people of regions as well: Westerners, Midwesterners, Southerners, Northerners, New Englanders.

One of the writers who has probed the divide between mobility and rootedness is Wallace Stegner. Stegner wrote all his life about the West, but truth to tell he was born on a farm in Iowa. It was the boom-and-bust of his childhood that took him to Salt Lake City and Seattle and Saskatchewan and the rugged terrain between. "My father was a boomer, a gambler, a rainbow-chaser, as footloose as a tumbleweed in a windstorm," he wrote. "My mother was always hopefully, hopelessly, trying to nest." And somewhere in the course of it, Stegner himself became a Westerner.

Regions define us in different ways: by the way we talk, by the way we look at our past, by what we eat, even by the kind of buildings we build, from brownstones in New York to haciendas in Santa Fe. For Eudora Welty, regions like her own South are "places of the heart." Historian David Hackett Fischer, a Marylander-turned-Yankee puts it another way. The region is an interweaving of "the people who share a sense of themselves, who form a bond with one another and also with the place."

Over the years the Endowment has immersed itself in regional studies; it has now begun an initiative to enhance that effort with a network of regional study centers. In this issue of Humanities we look at some projects already in progress and the possibilities that lie ahead. Edward L. Ayers takes us to an Internet site where we can look at nearby towns that took opposite sides in the Civil War. Stephen Nissenbaum debunks our ideas of old New England and tells how it was mythologized into what we think of as New England today. And Patricia Nelson Limerick gives us a "Top Ten" of what makes the West distinctively the West, from the borderland with Mexico to the chronic struggle for water.

"Most of our great historical problems are about change," comments Fischer in a conversation with NEH Chairman William R. Ferris. "But one of the most interesting problems in American history is to explain the persistence of regions even in the midst of the presence of change." In their conversation, the two range over a number of topics, from the likelihood of American culture becoming homogenized to the danger of ethnicity and regional pride turning violent in other parts of the world. As ideas of freedom and fairness grow in unfamiliar cultures, Fischer cautions, the form they take will be different. Americans, he said, need to remember the early years in our own country and the struggle of disparate groups to reach accommodation: The lesson for today is "how to find the common rules of engagement that people can share without surrendering their differences." He adds: "People making choices has proven to be an extraordinary thing. It is one of America's great inventions—its greatest, I should say."