Thinking about regionalism is a civic act, one that makes us care more about our home and its future.
Recently, when the news website Vox tasked readers with defining Midwestern states, 35,000 people clicked, shared and sketched out their maps. “No topic provokes as much of an impassioned (and polite) discussion from our dear Midwestern friends and colleagues as which states are part of the Midwest,” the map’s creators commented. After my 20-year career of studying American history, I’ve seen a convergence of forces, people and regionalist energies altering the Midwest scene in just a few years. As the Vox map proved, we are having a moment here, but it comes after a rough half-century.
From being the nation’s ascendant region in 1900—a center of industrial brawn and agrarian idealism where American presidents were born—the Midwest’s fortunes tumbled dramatically. By mid-century, the American West came to life, California boomed, and the South finally escaped the shadows of slavery and secession. Many of our grandparents, especially on the northern end of the region, have also voted with their feet, decamping to Tucson and Marco Island and leaving the Midwest’s rolling polar vortexes behind. The rural depopulation of the post-World War II era culminated in the 1980s farm crisis, and the deindustrialization wave that traumatized the Rust Belt further weakened the region.
The Midwest also suffered its fair share of intentional abuse. After World War I, critics elevated writers who supposedly denigrated the Midwest, such as Edgar Lee Masters, Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson (even though they all wrote many lovely things about the region), and characterized any hip Midwestern writing as a “revolt from the village” or a rejection of the Midwest. Writers who did not fit such a category were largely ignored and, now, remain forgotten.
Finding the precise reason for the eclipse of Midwestern studies might simply come down to the once-famed Baltimore-based polemicist H.L. Mencken’s words onWilla Cather: “I don’t care how well she writes, I don’t give a damn what happens in Nebraska.”
The World War II era also transformed American intellectual life, and not in a good way for Midwestern regionalism. If regionalist sentiments had a pulse during the 1930s – think, for examples, of Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton or Iowa’s Grant Wood – the body went cold after the war. Intellectual causes turned cosmopolitan, universalist and globalist, and the right-thinkers wanted to be citizens of the world, as n+1 editor Mark Greif explains in his brilliant new book The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973 (Princeton University Press, 2015). They imagined no countries, and instead a brotherhood of man, as John Lennon sang. Rarely did they imagine their home regions.
The institutions that formerly supported regionalist thinking in the Midwest also faded away or changed their mission to something else. Most damaging, perhaps, was the loss of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, which started in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1907 with the intent of publishing the histories of the interior country. But in the 1960s, it became a national, and thereby generic, American history organization. Gone was the chance to hear how the Midwest’s varied voices interpreted the region and its sub-regional components.
All of these factors help explain the region’s persistent identity for many coastal culture workers as “flyover country.”
Midwest Studies Revived
Now, however, Midwestern culture is becoming harder to ignore. During the fall of 2013, 30-some historians gathered in a bar in Hudson, Wisconsin, to bemoan the sad state of Midwestern history. Under a bright red neon sign, they formed what would become the Midwestern History Association (MHA). In 2015 the organization held its first annual conference and launched a new academic journal titled Studies in Midwestern History. The MHA’s second annual conference will be held this June in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
On a parallel plane, a group of scholars similarly concerned about the absence of publishing outlets for those studying the Midwest organized a new interdisciplinary journal titled Middle West Review, which is published by the University of Nebraska Press and offers a peer-reviewed and professional outlet for those who want to publish about the region. Its fall issue focused on the 1980s farm crisis in the Midwest, and the spring issue will focus on Native American history in the Midwest.
Regionalism as a Civil Act
The debates over the meta-borders of the Midwest and its interior borderlands and sub-regions animated the Vox commentators, and they will also help define a revived field of Midwestern studies. The energy of this debate inspired the Center for Western Studies to commission the book In Search of the Interior Borderlands: Where Does the Midwest End and the Great Plains Begin?, which will be published in coming years. It has also inspired MHA to begin work on a book of writings about the Midwest to help guide the unfolding debate.
All of this matters more than we might know. Thinking about regionalism is a civic act, after all, one that helps us understand our region and thus makes us care more about our home and how it is governed and about its future. It also serves to remind the region’s young and creative thinkers and writers that they are not duty-bound to skitter off to the coasts. The Iowan John T. Frederick, who launched a regionalist literary journal called The Midland in 1915, wanted Midwestern writers to put down roots in the region and not feel compelled to decamp to New York. “Scotland is none the worse for Burns and Scott,” he said. “None the worse that they did not move to London and interpret London themes for London publishers.”
This spirit runs through the sundry fronts of the effort to revive the study of the Midwest and its spunky rejection of subservience to the coasts, and its promotion of local democratic energies will, in the end, all be to the good for the Midwest, whatever the specific boundaries traced out by the readers of Vox.
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