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.

Master Local Historians

Tennesse State Archives

This looks like a great program.

Humanities Tennessee has awarded the American Association of State and Local History a grant to pilot Master Local Historians (MLS).

Here is the press release and description of the program:

AASLH is proud to announce that we have been awarded a grant from Humanities Tennessee to pilot our newest program, Master Local Historians.

The Master Local Historians project is a training program that highlights the relevance of historical inquiry for the general public and provides people with an opportunity to hone their historical research, writing, and interpretation skills. Participants will learn the basic tools and methods of the craft of history to better understand, and even explain, the world around them. By the end of the course, they will have a greater appreciation for the work of public history and be better able to assist history organizations in a variety of ways.

This project is funded by a grant from Humanities Tennessee, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and in-kind matching support from AASLH.

History—both knowledge of the past and the practice of researching and making sense of what happened in the past—is crucially important to the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and the future of our nation. On a state-by-state, community-by-community basis, people are figuring out what history means in the context of today. AASLH continually evaluates the opportunities history organizations have to employ history’s essential role in nurturing personal identity, teaching critical skills, helping to provide vital places to live and work, stimulating economic development, fostering engaged citizens, inspiring leadership, and providing a legacy. The Master Local Historians program is one such opportunity.

In the beginning stages of this project, AASLH has pulled together a team of national and Tennessee humanities scholars and advisors to review existing materials from similar programs and map a framework for a Master Local Historian program. This includes a curriculum that focuses on the basics of the historical profession, with three of those basics being piloted by partner organizations in West, Middle, and East Tennessee, including the Morton Museum of Collierville History, the Tennessee State Library and Archives, and the East Tennessee History Center. After the completion of a successful piloting period, AASLH plans to seek funding to launch the Master Local Historians program nationally.

The institutions will host the workshops in winter 2017/2018. AASLH will evaluate the individual sessions and the success of the program as a whole and in 2018 begin to create the full Master Local Historian curriculum based on the Tennessee pilots. The program highlights the continued relevance of history, a major theme of AASLH strategic plan since 2016.

AASLH is proud to have the following people serve as Humanities Scholars on this project, including Dr. Lorraine McConaghy (Public Historian), Myers Brown (Tennessee State Library and Archives), Dr. Carroll Van West (Tennessee State Historian), Adam Alfrey (East Tennessee History Center), Dr. Larry Cebula (Public Historian), Dr. Teresa Church (Public Historian), Dr. Jay Price (Public Historian), Brooke Mundy (Collierville Museum of History), Steve Murray (Alabama Department of Archives and History), Stuart Sanders (Kentucky Historical Society), Dr. C. Brendan Martin (MTSU) and Local Historians: Betsy Millard (Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum), Carol Kammen (Tompkins County (NY) Historian), and Beverly Tyler (Three Villages Historical Society).

For more information about Master Local Historians, and other Continuing Education opportunities, contact Amber Mitchell at Mitchell@aaslh.org.

SoJourn: A Journal of South Jersey History and Culture

As someone who has written a few things about the early history of southern New Jersey, I am thrilled to see this call for articles:

Call for Articles: SoJourn: Journal of South Jersey History & Culture 

In spring 2016, the South Jersey Culture & History Center at Stockton University will publish its inaugural issue of SoJourn, a new journal devoted to the history, culture, and geography of southern New Jersey. We are seeking community members, avocational historians, and scholars to contribute essays on topics related to South Jersey. Illustrations to accompany these articles will be a plus. Articles should be written for laypersons who are interested and curious about South Jersey topics, but do not necessarily have expertise in the areas covered. Potential authors should check SJCHC’s website in mid-October 2015 (https://blogs.stockton.edu/sjchc/) for a link to a simplified style sheet guide for article preparation. Journal editors will be happy to guide any would be authors. 

Sample topics might include: 

Biographical sketches of important but forgotten local people; the development or succession of a community’s roads or bridges; local transportation (focused by mode or area) and what changes it wrought in the served communities; history of community businesses and industries (wineries, garment factories, agriculture, etc.); old school houses, old hotels, or meeting halls; narrative descriptions of local geographical features; essays concerned with folklore, music, arts; and reviews of new local interest publications. Photo essays and old photograph and postcard reproductions are welcome with applicable captions. In short, if a South Jersey topic interests you, it will likely interest SoJourn’s readers. 

Parameters for submissions: 

• Submissions must pertain to topics bounded within the 8 southernmost counties of New Jersey (Burlington & Ocean Counties and south)

 • Manuscripts should be approximately 3,000–4,000 words long (5 to 7 pages of singlespaced text and 9 to 12 pages including images) • Manuscripts should conform to the SoJourn style sheet, available here: https://blogs.stockton.edu/sjchc/sojourn-style-sheet/ 

• Manuscripts, if at all possible, should be submitted in digital format (Word- or pdf-formatted documents preferred) • Images should be submitted as high-resolution tiff- or jpeg-formatted files (editors can assist with digital conversion of photos if necessary) 

• Appropriate citations printed as endnotes should be employed (see style sheet). 

• Original submissions only. Copyright licenses for all images must be obtained by the author or should be copyright-free figures and/or figures in the public domain. • Articles need to be more than just a chronology of the given topic. The author should be able to properly contextualize the subject by answering such questions as: a) why is this important?; b) what is the impact on the local or regional history? and c) how does it compare to similar events/personages/changes/processes in other localities? 

Call for submissions

Submissions are due by December 31, 2015. Send inquiries or submissions to Thomas.Kinsella@stockton.edu.