Finding a New Midwestern History
edited by jon k. lauck, gleaves whitney, and joseph hogan
nebraska, 365 pages, $55.00
In the first week of February 1994—twenty-five years ago, almost to the day—I flew from California to Chicago and took a limo to the western suburb of Wheaton for a job interview. Wendy and I were then in our mid-forties, and except for a couple of brief forays (three months or so in Georgia, a little less than a year in Oklahoma), we’d lived in California for our entire lives. For the last couple of decades, we had been in Pasadena. Although my grandmother, who had helped to raise me and my younger brother, grew up in Illinois, I had never even set foot in the Midwest until that day in February.
A few months later (I’d taken the job), we were living in Wheaton with three of our four children, and we’ve been here ever since (the kids are now far-flung). We’ve spent time in big cities and small towns (many of them struggling just to survive). We’ve cruised on interstate highways and wandered on back roads, visited churches and museums and art galleries and bookstores, bird-watched in protected wetlands, all the while slowly gaining some sense of the immense variety and distinctive character of this region.
Even when we’d only been Midwesterners for a few months, I began to notice—in a way I never had in California—the way the Midwest was described, referred to, dismissed, or (more often than not) simply ignored in books and articles I was reading, in the “national media,” and in conversation. Certain tropes were repeated ad nauseam (I’m sure I don’t have to rehearse them for you), and now and then, to make matters worse, some defender of “the heartland” and its simple virtues would rise up, giving us a smarmy set of positive clichés to counter the negative ones.
That toxic mix of neglect, dismissive condescension, and compensatory boosterism has prevailed for much of the time we’ve lived here. Of course there have been plenty of exceptions—good essays, histories, contemporary chronicles, novels, and films that illuminate aspects of the Midwest—but not at all in proportion to the richness of the subject. Hence I’m very happy to report that there are some hopeful signs of change: the fresh list from Belt Publishing, for instance (one of the most admirable newish ventures on the publishing scene); Joseph Bottum’s initiatives at Dakota State (including an ambitious series of public lectures); and the determination of scholar Jon K. Lauck, author of The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History, to convene conferences, spur publications, and tirelessly beat the drum—not for any single master account but for sustained attention from many different viewpoints.
A case in point is Finding a New Midwestern History, edited by Lauck, Gleaves Whitney, and Joseph Hogan. This collection includes twenty-one essays in six thematic sections that cover a wide range, from Michael C. Steiner’s leadoff piece, “The Birth of the Midwest and the Rise of Regional Theory,” to Susan E. Gray’s “Native Americans and Midwestern History,” from John E. Miller’s “Midwestern Small Towns” to Pamela Riney-Kehrberg’s “Growing Up Midwestern.” The result isn’t comprehensive (even ten such volumes couldn’t claim to be), but the menu is richly varied.
One of the first essays I read was Jon Butler on “The Midwest’s Spiritual Landscapes.” Butler, a superb historian, is in breezy mode here, but I hope that even now some younger scholar, struck by one of Butler’s passing observations (maybe his comment that “the Midwest has proven to be as religiously creative as any American region”), is pursuing one thread of this story.
There is no single “Midwest,” of course, but projects such as this, and the books Belt is publishing (I’m particularly looking forward to one in progress by Phil Christman), offer a much-needed alternative to disdain and cheerleading alike.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.