Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker

The nature of a Missourian

There’s a passage I often quote (or, usually, misquote) from William Least Heat Moon’s 1982 book Blue Highways.

A Missourian gets used to Southerners thinking him a Yankee, a Northerner considering him a cracker, a Westerner sneering at his effete Easternness, and the Easterner taking him for a cowhand.

Bill is from Missouri and lives, last I heard, not far from Columbia and Jefferson City in the center of the state. His people are Osage Indians (thus the unusual name—his European name is Bill Trogdon). Blue Highways holds up remarkably well 24 years on. It’s one of those books I always seem to have more than one copy of (another one is Jane Jacob’s Death and Life of Great American Cities).

But my point in bringing it up is this: that quoted passage gets to the core of Missouri’s identity as a divided state. It’s the start of a larger thesis, one I’ve contemplated for years, that if the lines of states were redrawn according to the character (or “tribes”) of its citizens, then Missouri would simply vanish. It’s an arbitrary political identity, despite any boosterism or claims to a statewide character.

For example: the Bible Belt (mainly Southern Baptists) covers only the lower third of the state, the same area, more or less, covered by a form of Southern American English. In the north of the state they tend to be non-Southern-Baptist Protestants (like Methodists) and speak with a Midwestern accent. St. Louis is a bit of an island, with more linguistic similarities to Chicago than to Kansas City, and a lot more Catholics than most parts of the state. Kansas City and St. Louis are like a cell undergoing mitosis, each drawing half of the state magnetically towards opposing nuclei. They, like Boone County (home to a large university community), tend to be more socially liberal than the rest of the state and tend to vote Democratic. In the hinterlands, folks tend to be socially conservative, fiscally conservative for local issues, and fiscally liberal for national issues—and vote accordingly, since fiscally liberal national votes mean more pork and earmarking for all sorts of bridges to nowhere. Also, the geology in the north is distinctly different from that in the south—the edge of the great plains in the north, the Ozarks in the south. The state is not only split roughly horizontally by a river, but vertically by two Federal Reserve districts.

A long essay on this, with maps and many more examples of divisions, is on my lifetime to-do list. One day I’ll get to it…

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Grant Barrett