In the East Coast imagination, the Midwest is populated largely by hicks, and life there is about as exciting as a field of corn. Instead of having a vital, rewarding career as, say, chief assistant to the assistant chief in the personnel department of the Federal Bureau of This or That, Midwesterners plow fields, work in factories and mills, operate small businesses. They belong to the Grange or the Rotarians, go in for church suppers and community singing. Most of them, of course, physically resemble the stern, homespun couple in Grant Wood ’s “American Gothic.” Garrison Keillor is their laureate. Their idea of a good time is a Saturday night hoedown.
Some of this is actually true, or partly true. But Midwesterners, as Jon K. Lauck stresses in a plea for renewed attention to this “lost region” and its history, aren’t so much provincial as they are populist, staunchly democratic, rooted in their communities and believers in individualism and self-reliance. In our standard accounts of early American history, we tend to emphasize the sophisticated East and the troubled South, yet as Ralph Waldo Emerson observed with his usual shrewdness, “Europe extends to the Alleghenies, while America lies beyond.” The fundamental spirit of our nation was forged on the frontier.
Just saying that last word should jog a few memories of the great historian Frederick Jackson Turner and what is usually called “the frontier thesis,” the view that U.S. history and our nation’s individualist, egalitarian ideals were shaped by western expansion, by the heroic character traits needed to be a pioneer, homesteader or outlaw, and by the fact that, in a pinch, one could always light out for the territories to start a new life.
Much of “The Lost Region” actually focuses on Turner’s immediate heirs, the early 20th-century group that Lauck dubs the Prairie Historians. These scholars came from small towns in Kansas, Iowa or the Dakotas, they taught at the university of Wisconsin or Minnesota and they believed in regional history. Their thinking and studies “focused on law, farming, Populism, land and geography, and social history.” Working in state and city archives or with small historical societies, they built prize-winning books from the ground up, relying on hard data more than grand theorizing.
Ultimately, these Midwestern teachers and researchers were in revolt against an American history “focused solely on the East, elites, and formal politics and diplomacy.” They felt, quite rightly, that the Ivy League establishment largely ignored “the actualities of common life.” Alas, matters didn’t improve after World War II: “Eastern liberals saw the rural Midwest as the home of McCarthyism, ‘ignorant biblical literalists, rednecks, and crypto anti-Semites,’ fascist and authoritarian undercurrents, and the generally darker aspects of democratic life.” Later on, post-1960s academics, with a leftist urban orientation, further turned away from agrarian and small-town studies to the far sexier task of undermining “the dominant narrative” of American history, demythologizing the ascendant class and directing new attention to the marginalized and forgotten. As Lauck writes, their revolutionary counter-narratives have, ironically, now become the main story in American history.
Certain of these new areas of investigation — e.g., the role and influence of women, the study of labor history — may help reinvigorate American studies, Midwestern-style. But up till now, because of our tendency to undervalue or even denigrate the heartland, our interpretations of the past have been skewed and fragmented. The East Coast, in particular, still exercises a pervasive cultural and informational hegemony. As H.L. Mencken said long ago of a Midwestern writer: “I don’t care how well she writes, I don’t give a damn what happens in Nebraska.” It’s a funny remark, until you realize he was dismissing Willa Cather, one of the four or five greatest American novelists of the 20th century.
In brief compass, Lauck lays out the case for the Midwest’s importance to the broader course of American history. He shows, for instance, how the region played a central role “by helping spark the American Revolution, stabilizing the young American republic, making it economically strong, giving it an agricultural heartland, and helping the North win the Civil War.” Win the Civil War? Lauck presents the data: “Indiana sent 57 percent of its military-aged men to join the Union army and ranked first in the contribution of soldiers. Illinois ranked second, Ohio fourth, Iowa fifth, Michigan sixth, and Wisconsin seventh, all ahead of older eastern states such as New York.” Lincoln, Grant, Sherman and Sheridan were all Midwesterners.
So how can we overcome what prairie historian Theodore Blegen once called the pervasive “arrogance of inverted provincialism”? How is the study of the Midwest and its past to be reinvigorated? Lauck starts with the basics:
“Midwesterners . . . should take their region seriously and . . . confidently articulate the case for studying their region. They should, for example, cajole the New York Times into writing more than periodic local-color stories about the Midwest. History departments in the Midwest should also make it a priority to teach a course on the region, and, if they fail to do so, administrators, boards of directors, regents, alumni, and midwesterners in general should prod them. This bureaucratic pressure will generate some demand for scholars who study the region and thus cause some young graduate students, who are rightly conscious of the demands of a weak academic job market, to take up midwestern topics in their dissertations, which can provide the bone and sinew of a larger corpus of work about the region. Some entrepreneurial midwesterner should also visit Warren Buffett in Omaha (or another similarly situated party) and ask him to fund a new ‘Journal of Midwestern History’ to serve as a home for historical studies of the region.”
Lauck grew up in South Dakota, where he still lives and now works as an adviser and legal counsel to Sen. John Thune (R). I grew up where the Midwest begins, in northern Ohio, and wanted to get out as soon as I could. My youthful dream was to become, in an old Marxist phrase, a rootless cosmopolitan. And yet hardly a day goes by that I don’t recall my childhood in Ohio and how it showed me the fundamental importance of family, school, neighborhood and church, taught me the necessity of hard work, self-reliance and kindness to others. These are American values, yes, but Midwestern ones above all.
Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.
Toward a Revival of Midwestern History
By Jon K. Lauck
Univ. of Iowa. 166 pp. Paperback, $35