Finding a New Midwestern History
Edited by Jon K. Lauck, Gleaves Whitney, & Joseph Hogan
University of Nebraska Press, 2018
J. L. Anderson, in his contribution to a terrific new anthology from the University of Nebraska Press, Finding a New Midwestern History, looks back to a briefly famous essay that historian Laurence Lafore wrote for Harper's in 1971. Lafore had recently left Swarthmore College and – voluntarily! – decamped to Iowa City to be a history professor at the University of Iowa, and in his cheeky essay, “In the Sticks,” he pokes fun at his earlier prejudices about the American Midwest, noting that “everything Easterners take for granted about Iowa (including the assumption that it is a variant spelling of Ohio and Idaho) is wrong, it follows that the assumptions I have grown up with about the definition and location of civilization are also probably wrong.” He noted that adjusting to life in the Midwest was “like taking off tight shoes; after the first elation of comfort has faded, you forget how great the discomfort was.”
Oddly and pleasingly, that elation permeates Finding a New Midwestern History, which is edited by Jon Lauck, Gleaves Whitney, and Joseph Hogan, who allude in their gamesome Introduction to an ongoing renaissance in the field of Midwestern history (although they point out that “a bit of midwestern modesty is needed during the early years of this effort, instead of issuance of grand pronouncements about what the future will hold ...”). The anthology they've assembled sprawls all over the now-established stretch of what's considered the Midwest: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, and the eastern parts of Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas. The cultures and histories of those regions are assayed from dozens of different vantage points, at once displaying and celebrating a huge region of the United States that's often written off by the country's heavily urban coastal populations as “fly-over country” or “square-state country.”
What emerges from these various chapters is a far more complex picture. Michael Allen, Jon Teaford, and Jon Butler, for instance (of the four Johns associated with the book, only one sports the silent 'h'), all explore the ways landscape – the vast farmlands, the cities all developed during the 19th century, and especially the ubiquity of river culture throughout the region. The book's most exuberant and challenging section, “The Midwest's Voices,” looks at the art and writing that's come out of the Midwest. And in the section called “The Iconic Midwest” includes the collection's standout essay, John Miller's wonderfully insightful analysis of what is perhaps the most emblematic steadfast of the region: “Midwestern Small Towns.” For the first three centuries of American life, he writes, “for the vast majority of the population, small towns had been the centers of economic activity, the pillars of society, and the heartbeat of culture,” adding: “What was true for the country as a whole seemed doubly true for the Midwest, the region of the country that more than any other was associated with and defined by life in its small towns.”
Readers who've spent any time in the American Midwest will smile gently throughout Miller's chapter, recognizing some of the quiet sense of discovery Lafore wrote about in that subtly condescending Harper's essay all those years ago. Culturally, historically, ideologically, socially – in every way and on every front (except for agriculture and the most flat-out thrilling college-level sports anywhere on the planet), the Midwest tends to be overlooked, and despite those modest hints at a revival, that tendency is only likely to increase as the 21st century herds more and more college-educated workers into large cities far from any amber waves of grain. But Finding a New American History a valiant effort nonetheless; like the area it treats, it's unexpected, intensely satisfying, and full of riches.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.