The Midwest: A Place with a History and a Future


A revival in the study of Midwestern history can actually be traced to three books. In 1996, E. Bradford Burns’ Kinship with the Land: Regionalist Thought in Iowa, 1894-1942 appeared from the University of Iowa Press. Burns had been a prominent historian of Latin America at the University of California, Los Angeles. In retirement, though, his attention returned to his native Iowa. Completed just before his death, Kinship with the Land was a masterful recovery and retelling of lowa’s literary and artistic effervescence over a near half-century span. Writing, without irony, of “the Iowa intelligentsia,” he described the novels of John T. Frederick, Johnson Brigham, Herbert Quick, Hamlin Garland, and Ruth Suckow, the poetry of Jay Sigmund, James Hearst, and Paul Engle, and the art of Grant Wood, Alma Broulik (woodcuts), and Carroll Coleman (in bookmaking). Burns showed how these figures cooperated to create an authentic Iowa identity, rich in ideas and images. Indeed, his book inspired a number of readers (including this reviewer) to make a spontaneous “art and books tour” of east-central Iowa, including the towns of Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, the villages of Mt. Vernon, Stone City, Anamosa, and Waubeek, and the Wapsipinicon River Valley.

A year later, 1997, the University of North Carolina Press brought out Jon Gjerde’s stunning work, The Minds of the West: Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830-1917. An historian at the University of California, Berkeley, albeit Iowa-born, Gjerde brilliantly showed how Christian communitarian thought, shaped in 19th Century Europe, blossomed in the German- and Dutch-settled areas of the Middle West. In these places, “romantic notions of an organic society composed of people enveloped by groups” took root, transmitted through seminaries and church publications, and challenging the dominant American narrative of individualism. Specifics included the “social Catholicism” of Pope Leo XIII, the family-centric Lutheranism of C.F.W. Walther, and the “organic” Calvinism of Abraham Kuyper. The Midwest, it turned out, held an important, although neglected, intellectual story.

It took some gestation time for the third book to appear: agricultural historian Jon K. Lauck’s The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History, coming from the University of Iowa Press in 2013. Lauck asked how the rich historiography of the Midwest, which had inspired the creation of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association in 1907 and a profusion of Pulitzer Prize winning volumes, went into almost complete eclipse after mid-century. While regional historical studies of the American South, the Far West, and even New England were still prominent, attention to the Middle West had largely vanished: “the field of midwestern history is now comatose.” He traced this, in part, to a peculiar attack by Eastern cultural elites on the Heartland’s identity, which transformed Midwestern rural virtues into the seedbeds of bigotry and ignorance. Inspired by figures such as Gjerde and Burns, Lauck called for a new Midwestern history.

One welcome result is the volume under review. Finding a New Midwestern History contains the papers presented at the inaugural conference of what would become the new Midwestern History Association. Held in May 2015 at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, the gathering and subsequent book are testaments to the pent-up scholarly energy that Jon Lauck and co-editors Gleaves Whitney and Joseph Hogan uncovered. It lays out the metrics of a fresh field of study that now claims another four annual conferences, a distinct journal, and new book series at university presses in Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Indiana. A recently comatose field of study has now very much come back to life.

Like most “conference” volumes, this one is uneven. Some of the essays represent surveys of their subjects, where hundreds of tantalizing examples are spun together, with relatively little attention given to integrating the material. James P. Leary’s chapter on Midwestern musicians, as example, pulls “Herr Louie” of old German Chicago, the songsters “Elmer the Swede and Lutefisk Ole,” the Polish accordionist Pee Wee King, and “Jelly Roll Morton” into a narrative that cries out for more detail and interpretation. John Butler’s chapter on “The Midwest’s Spiritual Landscape” is similar in its tantalizingly incomplete sweep through a complex matrix of faiths. As he notes, the real Midwest defies the stereotype of “a pleasant Protestant blob with some Catholics and Jews thrown in”; it is closer, he suggests, to a religious Tower of Babel, and perhaps the most religiously creative section of the country. In his “The View from the River,” Michael Allen compellingly argues that the Midwest is best understood through its defining rivers; especially in literature and music. He borrows from one Bobby Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota [aka Bob Dylan]: “The Mississippi River, the bloodstream of the blues, . . . starts from up in my neck of the woods.”

More specific stories are also told here. Zachary Michael Jack, another son of Iowa, describes the important role played by murals in the Midwestern art of Grant Wood, Marvin Cone, Thomas Hart Benton, and other painters from the 1930s and ‘40s. He follows the genesis and peculiar fate of a 1936 mural in the Cedar Rapids Federal Courthouse. Apparently including scenes suggesting an Old West lynching, references to syphilis, and nudes, it was subsequently painted over and uncovered again, as an object of ongoing dispute. [Here, I do wish that the book’s editors had included a photo!]

The opening essay, by University of California, Fullerton, historian Michael C. Steiner, relates two fascinating tales. The first traces the origin of the term, Middle West, along with controversy along the way as to what states should be included. Now commonly understood to comprise the states formed out of the original Northwest Territory–Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan—along with Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, and the eastern edges of the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas, earlier descriptive labels included The Old Northwest, The Middle Border, The Great Interior Region, The Prairie States, and The Lake-Plains. Hamlin Garland is credited with popularizing the “Middle West” label in the 1890s.

Steiner also shows how three men were largely responsible for shaping the classic Midwestern identity. All three had roots in Wisconsin and all used the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago as a touchstone for their regionalist thinking. Garland, a novelist and radical journalist, gave a talk at the Exposition that has perhaps never been equaled in its fervor. “Keep your past,” he told the tradition-bound East. The civilization taking shape in the Midwest “must be democratic and progressive . . . and stand for a mighty people who will not abide slavish genuflections before any idol.” He continued: “There is coming in the land the mightiest assertion in art of the rights of man and the glory of the physical universe ever made in the world. . . . Stand Up, O young Men and Women of the [Mid] West!” In this region would be found “the mixture of races . . . a great heterogenous, shifting, brave population, a land teeming with unrecorded and infinite drama.” In contrast, the second figure, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, found the Exposition to represent “all that was fraudulent and crapulent” in America. However, he too saw the Midwest as the place representing “the real American spirit . . . where breadth of view, independent thought and a tendency to take common sense into the realm of art, as in life, are more characteristic.” Historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who famously presented his thesis on the end of the American frontier at the Exposition, went on to celebrate a vital regionalism. And within that framework, the Midwest would be the “Center of the Republic,” holding “the balance of power” for it “has more in common with all the parts of the nation” than any other region.

Another chapter capturing my admiration is David R. McMahon’s discussion of the special place of sports in the Midwest. Among other good tales, he describes the distinctive triumph and telling defeat of Iowa’s unique “six on six” girls basketball program. During the middle decades of the 20th Century, the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union turned this game—where three players play offense and three defense, never crossing the half court line—into the most successful athletic program for high school girls in the country. Only small town schools participated, yet Iowa had an abundance of them: over a thousand incorporated towns with fewer than 1000 residents. The annual state tournament in Des Moines was a huge event. Sellout crowds gathered for every game at Vets Auditorium, along with a parade and massive press attention. As a teenage boy, my favorite team was the Everly Cattlefeeders, who won the tournament in 1966. Hailing from a town of 668 in northwest Iowa, the very name evoked images of muscular farm girls lifting 50 pound bags of alfalfa pellets before heading off to practice. [Note: I eventually married an Illinois cattlefeeder.] As another historian, Max McElwain, has put it, Iowa’s six-girl basketball program succeeded because of its contradictions: it was “simultaneously conservative and progressive,” just like “the larger Iowa culture.” It was killed off when a new generation of big-city reformers and columnists decided that it violated gender equality. So the girls turned to full court play, but the tournament quickly faded into obscurity. The comparable “big” sporting event in Iowa today is boys wrestling.

On a similar note of loss, the volume concludes with J.L. Anderson’s musings on the Midwestern identity since 1945. Inevitably, perhaps, he refers to Garrison Keillor, the public radio host of A Prairie Home Companion who in the 1970s and ‘80s turned himself into the representative “EveryMidwesterner.” Early on, he identified an egalitarian conformity that was distinctive to the region: “Don’t think too much of yourself because you are no better than anyone else.” Midwesterners also continued to shop at their local stores, because the shopkeepers were their neighbors. However, before being consumed by the “Me Too” movement a few years ago, even Keillor lamented that the Midwest was all but gone, killed off by a standardized mass culture. The question “Where are you from?” doesn’t matter anymore, he commented. “They live somewhere near a GAP store, and what else do you need to know?”

To some extent, I disagree. Every time I return from a trip overseas, or even from the East or West American coasts, I sense a difference. After experiencing Newark, LaGuardia, LAX, Heathrow, or Frankfort airports, entering even Chicago O’Hare feels like slipping on a comfortable old Midwestern shoe.

In sum, Finding a New Midwestern History is an exemplary compilation of historical interpretations both renewed and new. The enthusiasms of Garland, Wright, and Turner—registered a century and a quarter ago—have found compelling new voices, testifying to the Midwest’s remarkable past, and present.


  1. Thanks, Allan, for this wonderful review! As a life-long Midwesterner, I’m eager to check out the book.

  2. Thank you for the fascinating post.
    This is a national phenomenon–you can find small local histories regularly being written all over the country, until around shortly after WWII, when that basically all stopped, as you note.

  3. More scholarship about the Midwest is welcome — seriously, sorely needed. But these discussions usually frustrate me. I start with the notion of a single Midwest, regardless of the states included. I am sure there is no homogeneous Midwest. It’s too vast an area and too complex in its make up in people, natural resources, and geology. I imagine it would be similar to an Omahan saying someone from the Bronx and someone from Long Island are the same. To generalize about the Midwest is akin to generalizing about the United States of America. Like many places across the country, the Midwest was settled by different kinds of people from different parts of the world at different times in history. I understand the works mentioned in the essay do point out differences, and I’m not criticizing this essay in particular. Yet, often in the language of these discussions I hear and read a bias that significantly misunderstands and underestimates the Midwest. It will continue, I understand, but it is a bit frustrating for a Nebraska boy. Off I go to read “The Dandy Frightening the Squire.”

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