How the Midwest Became “Ordinary”

Midwest crop

Over at VOX, writer Phil Christman explains how the Midwest “became a symbol of what’s ordinary, wholesome and practical–and why this idea endures.” His forthcoming book is Midwest Futures. Here is a taste of his piece:

Anytime a region this large, this diverse, and this hard to define becomes a symbol for a concept that has the combined vagueness and life-regulating power of “normalcy,” it should tell us that we’re in the presence of myth. In its worst form, the association between Midwesternness and normalcy can become a proxy for whitenessstraightness, and/or maleness. There are people in the world who think that our outer-borough, rich-guy, New Yorker president better represents the Midwest than does Ilhan Omar, a Somali immigrant elected in 2018 to the House of Representatives from Minnesota, where she has lived for more than 20 years. This kind of thinking legitimizes prejudice while obscuring the region’s actual demographics, which are all over the place.

All that said, the idea’s appeal is powerful. Normalcy can give safety, warmth, the smugness of a person whose plate is full. It can make us feel invulnerable, passed over by history and its dangers, too broad for the grave, durable enough to survive biblical conflagration or climate change or, say, an ill-handled and sudden pandemic. Because it attracts us, normal-ness becomes a fetish, a performance, or a product. The Midwest, because of its perceived averageness, has long been forced to play a symbolic role in this process.

For all its appeal, normalcy is also alienating. I meet many Midwesterners who seem honestly to believe that their experiences are too banal for description, and, especially in my teaching, I meet young people who are so angry at themselves for their normal-ness that they can neither enjoy their lives nor change them. Among people who are less political — that is, among people who lean toward the right and don’t know it — you often hear a kind of general regret, a sense of having missed something, having blown a chance. The Midwest seems to offer us the chance to become normal, but what this means in practice is a paranoid sense that you’ve missed something irrevocable.

But precisely because it is a myth, the perceived normalcy of the Midwest does tell us a lot about ourselves. Myths always do. Early-20th-century American historians, intellectuals, writers, and politicians consciously constructed our image of the Midwest as the place where America averaged itself out.

Read the entire piece here.

The Revival of Midwestern History

Midwest

Jon Lauck of the University of South Dakota is one of the growing number of scholars trying to bring back the history of Midwest.  Check out his books:

From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920-1965

The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History

(edited with Gleaves Whitney and Joseph Hogan), Finding a New Midwestern History

Prairie republic: The Political Culture of Dakota Territory, 1879-1889

Over at Perspectives on History, Kritika Agarwal reflects on this subfield.  Here is a taste:

“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.

Read the rest here.

When Women Fought for Suffrage by Disparaging German Immigrants

Carrie_Chapman_Catt_and_Anna_Howard_Shaw_in_1917

Sara Egge, an assistant professor of history at Centre College, reminds us that history is complicated.  Over at Zocalo, Egge shows how some women fighting for the right to vote “saw German men as backward, ignorant, and less worthy of citizenship than themselves.”

Here is a taste:

Nativist fear built into outright hysteria, and Midwestern suffragists began recasting decades of foreign resistance to assimilation as treason. They argued that to protect democracy, only those citizens who understood civic responsibility should vote. By 1917, when the United States entered World War I, suffragists crystallized their message. In South Dakota, propaganda warned of the untrustworthy “alien enemy” while celebrating patriotic suffragists who sacrificed “so deeply for the world struggle.” Another message deemed the “women of America…too noble and too intelligent and too devoted to be slackers” like their German counterparts.

That rhetorical maneuver finally gave woman suffrage the political leverage it needed to achieve victory. In November 1918, voters in South Dakota passed a woman suffrage amendment to the state’s constitution with an impressive 64 percent majority. Of the first 15 states to ratify the 19th Amendment, about half were in the Midwest— a startling shift for a region that had seemed permanently opposed to woman suffrage.

While Shaw’s speech was meant for an audience living in an important historical moment and place, it also resonates today. Suffragists had no qualms about using nativism to open democracy to women. They were willing to skewer immigrants in their decades-long quest for political equality. Shaw’s remarks also remind us how many assumptions Americans have made—in 1914 and today—about the rights and responsibilities that accompany citizenship.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with William Hogeland

Black SnakeWilliam Hogeland is a writer and historian.  This interview is based on his new book Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion That Opened the West (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Autumn of the Black Snake?

WH: When I stumbled over the story of the first war this nation ever fought, I had strong feelings that its obscurity had to be undeserved.  As I began to explore the story and its nuances, that impression only grew.  Not I think its one of the two or three pivotal events of the American founding, and that both its importance and its strange obscurity are revealing of the deepest themes in American life.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Autumn of the Black Snake?

WH: Victory in the war of 1791-1794 to conquer what is now the Midwest — the war in which the nation’s army was first formed, against strong political opposition to forming a national army — ignited American empire. The desire of speculators and developers — George Washington is probably the most famous — to gain possession of that territory had been integral to American independence and American nation; defeating and removing the people of indigenous nations formerly occupying that region begins with the founding generation, and with the Washington administration, and is a hallmark of the republic’s founding. 

JF: Why do we need to read Autumn of the Black Snake?

WH: It’s pretty hard for me to claim that anyone really needs to read my book. I hope the characters, action, and themes I’ve discovered in the story I tell will make it rewarding reading for anyone interested in the origins of the nation and the key issues we continue to struggle with today. 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? 

WH: I began telling stories of the American past after the terrorist attacks of September 2001. I didn’t think that project would necessarily continue after my first book, The Whiskey Rebellion, so an exact “why” is hard to come up with, but I was interested at that moment in violence and terror in the American origin story. 

JF: What is your next project?

WH: TBD

JF: Thanks, Bill.