Eric Miller on The Lost Cause of the Midwest

Indiana Crossroads

Devon, PA.  If you have not encountered Eric Miller’s savage indignation elsewhere, here is a fine place to start: his review of David S. Brown’s Beyond the Frontier: The Midwestern Voice in American Historical Writing, an impressive new history of the academic historians of the Middle West, from Fredrick Jackson Turner and Charles Beard to the Jeremiah of our age, Christopher Lasch.

Brown’s monograph surveys the early- and mid-Twentieth-Century effort of historians from the Midwest to defend their region as a true apotheosis of American culture; on the flat and rolling lands stretching from western Ohio to western Iowa, Americans at their most optimistic, scrappy, independent, and temperate created a new American civilization that existed in competition and tension with the older, Eastern tradition.  Such an account is invaluable for a number of reasons, the most sensational of which will be that for many Midwesterners it will come as news that they “have” any culture of their own.  The comparative youth of the Midwestern settlements, their native populism and agrarian sense of the good of individual resources and communal responsibility, and their expression of the intellectual life primarily in the form of small, rural-centered liberal arts colleges, all militated against any kind of self-conscious or assertive Midwestern culture coming into being.  And so, the land was ripe picking for the age of television: how much of life in the Midwest consists of receiving broadcast beams from the East and West coasts only sociologists and advertising researchers really know, but I can say from experience that it is enough to give life in flyover country the sense of being, well, flown over: a dream-like death-in-life, from which one hopes to be stirred by turning from the local news to the national, as if reality itself were located elsewhere.  The effort to make this great if dry people coherent to itself was a great project that industrialization, mobility, and American corporatism both gave birth to, allowed to flourish for a spell, and then destroyed like a Walmart-bomb dropped on Main Street in Van Wert, Ohio.  If we weren’t the “crossroads of America” before, we became as much in becoming the nodal target demographic for a million commercial images of goods that look absurd on the streets of Gary or on the streets of Wakarusa.

Brown captures the historical details of this project: the articulate advocacy of Midwestern populism, isolationism, and hearthstone fidelity as a model for America as a whole.  Miller intervenes to tell us — rightly — that the bland conventions of contemporary academic historical writing have nothing on the works of Beard and Lasch; this is a shame, because ours is an age that calls for intelligent passion, for an effort to save the remnants of the American heartland and to make it flourish once again.  Miller concludes:

Brown’s is, in short, a sobering story, taking us into the tragedy not just of American diplomacy but of America itself. These historians were right: the Middle West really did have a good thing going—it had manygood things going. Yet it found itself unable to protect its goods. What could be worse? The outrage of Beard, Williams, Lasch, Bacevich, and so many others is utterly warranted.

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