Reckoning with the Imperial We

A review of Doug Mack’s The Not-Quite State of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA (W. W. Norton, 2017).

By Kelsey Atherton

Before I can talk about Doug Mack’s travelogue-cum-history of America’s colonies, “The Not-Quite States of America,” I’m going to take a quick detour to talk about the Red Sox. As a baseball-ambivalent westerner, growing up I knew vaguely that the Sox were good in like the 1910s, hadn’t won a World Series in a long time, and then were good again, winning a bunch of them. But I didn’t really understand what that meant as lifetimes of lived experience, generations of crushing disappointment between triumphs. To make sure I could grasp the significance, my Massachusetts born-and-raised spouse sat me down with “Still We Believe,” a 2004 movie documenting the Sox’s 2003 season. By sheer coincidence, 2003 was the 86th and final year of an 86-year-long World Series drought, and so by luck director Paul Doyle Jr. managed to capture the last moment of a certain mood, a certain era, a certain generations-long status quo that would, within a year, change radically.

It was this sense of accidental prescience that kept striking me as I read “Not-Quite States.” The book was first published in 2017 (through Twitter, Mack sent me an early copy of the paperback, which released last month), and the travels documented took place in the few years before publication. Mack is by trade a travel writer, and so his work reads as an over-the-shoulder look of who he met, what he saw, and the big questions he was thinking about during the travels. The impetus for the trip is charmingly mundane: Mack and his wife Maren mused over some minted quarters for the territories, like the earlier ones for the States, and from there Mack decided to go in search of the asterixed part of America. That he did so right before Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico is cosmic coincidence. Here we have tourist testament and travelogue, aimed to get the passively curious stateside reader interested in the fates of the territories, and suddenly too we have the territories thrust into the national conversation in a way the territories haven’t been for a generation, and possibly haven’t been since they were first acquired in a fit of imperial pique.

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