Midwestern History Is on the Map
Scholars Revive a Dormant Field
Once the dust had settled on Donald Trump’s election as the 45th president of the United States, pundits and politicians across the country began to wonder: What happened in the Midwest? As David Plouffe, manager of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, wrote in the New York Times, Trump “ended up winning 306 electoral votes and, most important, did it by breaking into the Upper Midwest, leaving the blue Big Ten firewall in ruins. What happened?” Long derided as “flyover country,” the Midwest was front and center.
“All of a sudden,” says Jon Lauck, professor of history at the University of South Dakota and past president of the Midwestern History Association (MHA), “people wanted to know why these swing counties around Milwaukee” and states like “Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa . . . went for Trump.” But for Lauck and other historians of the Midwest, the 2016 election was hardly surprising. The Midwest, a growing group of scholars says, is an enormously important region—historically, politically, socially, and culturally. And “if you understood that history,” says Edward Frantz (Univ. of Indianapolis), “you would not have been as shocked in early November 2016 as many of the people elsewhere were.”
The region, as the website of the MHA will tell you, “has suffered from decades of neglect and inattention,” both within and outside of academia. As the introduction of Finding a New Midwestern History (eds. Lauck, Joseph Hogan, and Gleaves Whitney, Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2018) states, “In comparison to such regions as the South, the Far West, and New England, the Midwest and its culture—the history of its people and places; its literature, music, and art; the complexity and richness of its landscapes—has been neglected.” Yet Midwestern history isn’t entirely new.
The earliest historian to pay attention to the region was none other than Frederick Jackson Turner, who in the late 19th century published several essays on “the Middle West.” His work became foundational for a group of scholars whom Lauck dubs the Prairie Historians. Most of them were born in the region; as Lauck writes, they “developed a pattern of thought and a network of personalities, affiliations, and institutions that congealed into an early twentieth-century movement to advance the cause of studying the history of the prairie Midwest.” With an intense commitment to state and local history, the Prairie Historians focused on topics such as colonial settlement, the social and ethnic history of the Midwest, the development of American democracy and populism in the region, and agricultural and rural history.
The revival of interest in Midwestern history can be traced to a group of 30 historians informally convened in 2013.
In 1907, the Prairie Historians established the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (MVHA), a group that Lauck says challenged “the eastern-dominated” AHA, which “opposed” it. Nevertheless, the MVHA carried on, founding a journal in 1914—the Mississippi Valley Historical Review. By the 1950s, however, the Prairie Historians had largely disbanded; the Mississippi Valley Historical Review had evolved into the Journal of American History and the MVHA into the Organization of American Historians, dedicated to all of American history.
In The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History (2013), Lauck lays the cause of the Prairie Historians’ waning influence at the feet of “new research agendas, declining budgets, and the retirement of an older generation of historians[.]” Lauck says that history departments in major Midwestern universities also “dropped the ball”: unlike universities in the South that kept Southern history robust by hiring scholars in the field, Midwestern universities recruited no one to teach the region’s history.
Pamela Riney-Kehrberg (Iowa State Univ.), past president of the MHA, adds that the slump was also partially due to state and local history going out of fashion: “If you studied state history, it was seen as provincial, narrow, and not speaking to the big issues of our time.” “In the middle of the 20th century,” she explains, historians “shifted to a more . . . big-picture approach.” As Frantz says, with the Cold War looming and foreign policy concerns dominant, an emphasis on the nation and nationalism “overshadowed” interest in the Midwest, which was “culturally seen as monolithic, plain, and not particularly interesting.”
The recent revival of interest in Midwestern history can be traced to a group of 30 historians informally convened by Lauck at the Northern Great Plains History Conference in Hudson, Wisconsin, in 2013. Lauck was preparing for the release of The Lost Region, and the moment seemed ripe to revive scholarly interest in the Midwest. “Everyone agreed: there’s no field; we need to do something about it,” he says. In short order, the Midwestern History Working Group was born, and a year later, the MHA was formally established. Since then, the MHA has instituted a scholarly journal—the Middle West Review—and organized four annual conferences, with a fifth on the way.
Yet despite renewed interest, identifying the field’s central questions is still challenging. In 2015, the late Andrew Cayton, a historian and author of several books on the Midwest, wrote on H-Midwest, “Many scholars write books and articles set in a place we agree in general terms is Midwestern but few actually engage with what Midwestern might mean. What are the defining characteristics—or better, the central questions—of Midwestern Studies? Most scholars avoid this challenge[.]” Says Lauck, “I think unlike other fields like Southern history or Western history, which are very big, robust fields . . . we have a lot of basic spadework to do. There just has not been a lot of foundational work done on the field. And I think a lot of the basic questions that are asked and have been written about in other regions still need to be covered.”
The experiences of people living in, say, Sioux Center, Iowa, differ significantly from those in Chicago.
In fact, Midwestern history is still contending with many of the issues that plagued it during its decline. Stereotypes of the Midwest as a bland, featureless place persist, even though historians have been trying to make the case for the region’s importance for years. Many scholars argue that the Midwest’s distinctiveness from the East Coast, the South, and the West, and its resistance to coastal politics and culture, has allowed it to develop a regional identity of its own that has historically emphasized egalitarianism and uniquely democratic civil traditions. “The Midwest matters,” writes Lauck in The Lost Region, “because it helps explain the course of foundational events in North America, the origins of the American Revolution, the political and social foundations of the American republic, the outcome of the Civil War, and the emergence of the United States as a world power that shaped global events.”
The urban/rural divide in the region and debates about what the Midwest encompasses geographically and culturally have also made the region difficult to study, says Diane Mutti-Burke, director of the Center for Midwestern Studies at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. Chicago, for example, has gotten a lot of attention from historians, she says, but the experiences of people living there differ significantly from those of residents of, say, Sioux Center, Iowa. Frantz says, however, that as much as he appreciates these conversations about geography, one of the signs that the field has arrived is that people now spend less time arguing where the Midwest is and more on thinking about what happens there.
All this fuzziness about what Midwestern history is, however, means there is plenty of room for the field to grow. As Riney-Kehrberg says, “The Midwestern history group is perhaps a bit looser in terms of the whole range of things that people study.” For Frantz, historians of the Midwest examine many of the same trends as other historians—“whether that’s a struggle over identity, or power, or race, or political economy”—but “within a Midwestern context.” And they usually do so, he adds, “with some recognition that the way that that unfolds in the region we call the Midwest makes it different from that which takes place in the East and the South and the West.” So while many scholars are still interested in the same questions as the Prairie Historians were, the programs of the MHA annual meeting for the past couple of years demonstrate other wide-ranging interests: the history of Latinos, African Americans, and Native Americans in the Midwest; art, music, sports, and literature; and questions of race, gender, class, and identity—all rooted in a state and local context.
In addition to the association and the journal, Lauck hopes that a series of new books will help further establish the field. “If you’re going to get a field built up and have a base of knowledge,” he says, “you need to have some foundational books for the field[.]” He points to several books, including Finding a New Midwestern History, that have come out recently from university presses in the Midwest. Hastings College Press has published two books in its Rediscovering the American Midwest series, with one more on the way. Lauck is also editing a book for Oxford University Press on the history of the region, for which he has lined up 40 contributors.
Given the flurry of activity, Lauck is optimistic about the field’s future, despite the state of the humanities in the academy in general. “The story of the emergence of the association and the growing number of books being published about the region is a wonderful bright spot in the profession right now,” says Lauck. “When I go to conferences and talk to historians, there’s just like this overpowering mood of gloom and doom. It’s demoralizing. . . . I think it was high time, past time for there to be a revival of interest in this region. And I think it’s a great success story.”
Kritika Agarwal is managing editor of Perspectives. She tweets @kritikaldesi.
This article has been updated to note the correct number of conferences organized by the Midwestern History Association.
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