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


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.

Does Regionalism Still Exist in the United States?

Historiann asks a very interesting question.  Do American historians still study distinct regions? Southern history seems to be going strong.  So does Western history.  But how useful are these regional categories?

In the sub-field of early American history, Johns Hopkins University Press continues to publish their Regional Perspectives in Early America series.  It seems to be going strong. 

I think the regions of British colonial America are important and I order part of my colonial America course around the distinctions between the settlement and development of New England, the Chesapeake, the Middle Colonies, the Lower South, and the West Indies.  But if you structure a colonial America course entirely on regions it could get complicated, especially with the wealth of scholarship on the early Gulf Coast, the Spanish West, and New France.  Where do you discuss native Americans and slavery?  And where do things like consumerism, religion, gender,  the Enlightenment, and other themes fit into the mix?  When you discuss these things as categories in a broadly defined “colonial America,” you are in danger of missing the particularities.  For example, how does women’s history in New England look different than women’s history in the Chesapeake?  Or how do colonial encounters with natives in New York differ from those in the lower South?

New scholarship can make teaching really difficult.

Here is a taste of Historiann’s post:

The way things have changed in my field of early American history is instructive, I believe, about the way things are going (or have already gone.)  My training in the northeast 20-25 years ago was very regionally-based, although those were the sub-regions of colonial British America:  New England, the Middle Colonies, the Chesapeake, the Lower South, and the Caribbean.  That was diversity in the 1980s and 1990s, with one week tossed in for “women,” one for “African Americans,” and one for “Native Americans.”  (Forward-thinkers would also include a week on “the backcountry,” which meant mostly Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley.)  Now when I teach at both the undergraduate and graduate level, I wouldn’t dream of using this class organization, and I tend to focus on more conceptual or methodological issues, like environmental history, the history of slavery, women’s and gender history, the history of the body, the history of sexuality, history and memory, religious encounters, and the like.

What do the rest of you historians think?  Is region dead, replaced by more conceptual or process-based analyses and/or studies that aren’t regional but are rather intensely local?  Why has this happened, if indeed it has happened?  Is it happening outside of U.S. history in any other national or continental histories?  Is this a good or a bad development, in your view?

As is always the case with Historiann’s posts, the comments are worth reading.

The Ongoing "Ubiquitarianism" of American Religion

Back in the mid-1990s I was working on a dissertation on the religious development of the West Jersey colony. (For those unfamiliar with British-American history, this was a colony founded by Quakers in 1676. In 1702 it merged with the “East Jersey” colony to form the royal colony of “New Jersey”).

I tried to pitch the revised dissertation to university presses under the title “Temples of Holiness, Foundations of Virtue: Protestantism and the Moral Improvement of the Southern New Jersey Countryside.” I had chapters on the Quaker founding of West Jersey, everyday rural life in the colony, the fragile state of religious life, the impact of the First Great Awakening, and the growth of Presbyterians, Swedish Lutherans (with a particular emphasis on religion and ethnicity), and, eventually, Methodists. I still think it is a pretty good project, but I have to agree with the acquisition editors who told me that it was too narrow for a wide readership. Maybe someday I will publish it in book form. (If there are any publishers out there who might be interested, shoot me an e-mail).

One of the chapters in the manuscript was (and is still) entitled “The Ubiquitarians of Eighteenth-Century South Jersey.” This chapter explored the behavior and beliefs of laypersons in the region. Studies of the laity in early America was very “hot” at the time and I thought I better have a chapter dealing with ordinary churchgoers as a counter to the ministerial-focused narrative that drives a good portion of the manuscript.

In a remote region like southern New Jersey, where clergyman were hard to come by, laypersons had no qualms about traveling to places where spiritual nourishment could be found. They were not religious consumers per se, since consumerism implies a choice of products. Instead they flocked to the only religious game in town–no matter the denominational affiliation. Laypersons affiliated themselves with churches so that they might baptize their children or bury their parents.

In 1741, Wilhelm Berkenmeyer, a German Lutheran minister, described early New Jersey as a place where “very few believe that the difference (in religion) has any significance” and where most people wish that no difference would be observed.” This casual orientation toward religion was captured best by the Rev. William Lindsay, a Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (Anglican) priest assigned to Trenton, New Jersey. Lindsey complained about the large number of “ubiquitarians” living within the bounds of his parish. He defined this group of Protestants as those who regularly attended religious services, but seldom frequented the same church. Throughout South Jersey, I argued, attempts at what Jon Butler has called “denominational order” were consistently foiled by these “indifferent,” but spiritually sensitive, “ubiquitarians.” (This term was first identified by Patricia Bonomi in Under the Cope of Heaven).

Later I would use this research in a paper at a meeting of the American Society of Church History. Before a crowd of less than ten people at an 8:00am Sunday morning panel, I boldly questioned the usefulness of the term “denomination” when applied to eighteenth-century America. Oh well, at least it was a line on my vita.

As I look back on this chapter (I never published it), I now remember what I was trying to do. I wanted to say something about what “popular religion” or “lived religion” might look like in the middle colonies. So much of the work on this subject–David Hall was the prime practitioner at the time–focused on New England, where the Puritan-Congregational establishment held sway. As a result, early American popular religion” was always defined in terms of resistance to a dominant or established religious culture. What might we say, I wondered, about “lived” or “popular” religion in a region like the Mid-Atlantic where religious establishments did not exist?”

I was reminded of all this “ubiquitarianism” after I read the recent report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life about the way in which the religious practices of Americans do not “fit neatly into conventional categories.” It seems that Americans today are engaging in “multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions.” According to the report, “many say they attend worship services of more than one faith or denomination–even when they are not traveling or going to special events like weddings and funerals.”

The report is very interesting and revealing, but it reminds me a lot of my eighteenth-century south Jersey ubiquitarians who ran from church to church in the rural countryside. While the habits of today’s “ubiquitarians” are much more pluralistic than my middle colony Protestants, this kind of popular religious behavior is not particularly new.

Trevor Burnard’s Passion for Places

I have always considered myself part of a school of early American historians who study the Middle Colonies. This is largely because my dissertation advisor was an expert on the region and I wrote part of most of my dissertation in Philadelphia. (It may also have had something to do with the fact that I was born and raised in the New York metropolitan area). But writing The Way of Improvement Leads Home forced me to dig into other regions– plantation Virginia, New England (eastern Long Island and southwestern Connecticut), and the Virginia and Pennsylvania backcountry.

I have always admired early American historians who have not limited their careers to writing about one region. Edmund Morgan, Richard Dunn, Christine Heryman, and T.H. Breen come to mind. After writing my book, I was reminded again that the regions of colonial America were very different, giving me a renewed appreciation for a historian like Dunn who could write about sugar and slaves in the West Indies, William Penn, the Age of Religious Wars, and John Winthrop. (Dunn’s recent project is a comparative study of Chesapeake and Jamaica plantation life). Or Breen, who has written on Virginia, New England, and East Hampton, NY, not to mention his great book on consumerism and the American Revolution.

Trevor Burnard, in “A Passion for the Places,” his July 2008 Common-Place essay, wonders why colonial American historians organize their field by regions while historians of contemporary America think about their field(s) in terms of chronology. (HT to Michael Pasquier for calling my attention to this piece). Here is a brief taste of this excellent essay:

Indeed, what is remarkable about recent developments in early American historiography, notably the rush towards seeing everything in an Atlantic context, is how the geographical focus of the “new social history” has not only been retained but has been enhanced. Indeed, I would argue that Atlantic or borderlands histories (both in themselves geographical terms) are convincing evidence of a longstanding geographical turn in early American history, a more long-lasting and more influential turn than more heralded turns towards theory, towards linguistics, and towards anthropology. If anything defines early American history today, it is its relentless geographical focus. It is space, not time, that dominates our attention.