Any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences.
BY DOUG KIEL | THE NEW TERRITORY ISSUE 03
One idealized narrative through which midwesterners understand themselves, and link their region to the West, is the pioneer myth. Many of the Midwest’s inhabitants envision the region as a place where the frontier fully closed: where Native peoples vanished; where the land was ordered and divided into neatly rational units; and where a white Christian, mostly Catholic and Lutheran, American society took firm hold. Thus, midwesterners imagine themselves inhabiting a place where the frontier has fully yielded to a great American zone of homogeneity. They frequently resist distinguishing their region as anything but the middle. As “average America,” midwesterners often consider their region a microcosm for the rest of the nation, and the desire to be unexceptional partly explains why historians of the Midwest have been less successful at carving out a dis- tinct identity for their region than have historians of the West, South, and Northeast. The Midwest’s ineffability is part and parcel of what makes it the Midwest. If this imagined homogeneity were actually true, though, the Midwest would not be so difficult to define.
Although the myth of homogeneity is important to consider in defining the Midwest, even more important is the diversity of the region and the at times fraught relationships between its ethnic, racial, and religious groups. There is a danger in mistaking the Midwest’s modest contemporary persona for the region’s historical character. Such a self-identity conceals how, as both a frontier zone and a modern US region, the Midwest’s multiplicity of groups have struggled to carry out their own visions and maintain degrees of cultural integrity while coexisting with each other. A cultural mosaic rather than a melting pot, the Midwest has served as a meeting ground between European immigrants, New Englanders, mid-Atlantic migrants, Upland Southerners, American Indians, and later African American, Latino, Asian, and Middle Eastern immigrants. It is far from a homogenous society.
Originally published in Middle West Review, Volume 1, Issue 1. Reprinted with permission from University of Nebraska Press.
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