On the Concept of “The North”

Much has been made in historical writing about “the South.”  Defining the South, discussing what makes the South distinct, discussing whether the South is distinct, discussing the utility of the concept of “the South” as opposed to many Souths … and so on.  Discussions of southern identity have long been a stable of scholarship and something of a cottage industry. There’s even a Southern Historical Association.

But what about “the North?”  What exactly is “the North?”  Is it what is not “the South?’  Of course not: no one would define California, for example, as part of the North, although much is made of the distinctions between northern and southern California.  Indeed, do so-called northerners recognize themselves as northerners outside of discussions about the South and southerners?  After all, folks from Wisconsin, New York, and Massachusetts are all northerners, but do they see themselves as sharing a common identity?  I’d argue no: southerners are far more likely to recognize a regional identity as southerners, while to the north there are distinctions between New England, New York, perhaps the Middle Atlantic states, and the Midwest/old Northwest … and that’s for starters. There is no Northern Historical Association (there is a Western Historical Association, by the way).

One could argue that “the North” does not exist except as a counterpart to “the South,” a construct constructed by (mostly white) southerners to make comparisons … maybe even to turn the notion of crafting “the other” on its head.  That is, many people define “American” in largely northern terms, rendering the South as a different (even exotic) land; in turn white southerners define a North in ways that serve their own bolstering of southern identity and distinctiveness.

The term clarifies some things and obscures others.  For example, I don’t think much of portraying the Civil War as North versus South.  That blurs divisions and diversity within both regions; moreover, very few people would define Maryland, Kentucky, or Missouri as northern (this issue is somehow less pressing when it comes to Delaware).

So how do you define “the North?”  Why?