Anyone living in Nebraska or Iowa has heard the snarky stereotypes about the Midwest. You know them all. Farm fields. Football. Flyover country. And, of course: Boring.
Compared with the South, New England, the East or West Coasts, the Midwest can't seem to catch a break.
The uninformed put-downs have been pretty much the same since Baltimore-born writer-critic H.L. Mencken sneered about one of America's great novelists, Willa Cather: “I don't care how well she writes, I don't give a damn what happens in Nebraska.”
It's enough to fill a book. Which now, in a way, it has.
“The main currents of American cultural and political life do not focus on the prairie Midwest very much,” writes South Dakotan Jon K. Lauck in a new book, “The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History.”
And yet, Lauck argues, a great deal of what has happened in these parts matters a great deal to the rest of the country. And everyone should know it.
“The region played a central role in American development by helping spark the American Revolution, stabilizing the young American republic, making it economically strong, giving it an agricultural heartland, and helping the North win the Civil War,” he writes.
“The Midwest replicated the republican institutions created by the American Founders, and its settler populism made them more democratic. It fostered the growth of a regional identity and thereby weakened the cultural dominance of the urban East. Attention to land markets on the prairie also deepened the American embrace of capitalist institutions and attitudes.”
Oh, is that all?
Lauck is an attorney, historian and adviser to U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. His book talks about Midwestern historians, who once flourished (with an organizational boost in Nebraska back in 1907) but have since become something of a rare breed. He argues that a resurgence of Midwestern historical study is a good place to begin resuscitating the region's influence and respect.
Ours is a region with diversity — stretching from Ohio to the Great Plains, through small towns and major metropolises, to farms and factories. Yet even we tend to ignore ourselves. Lauck says the University of Georgia has 10 people on its staff teaching the history of that state and the South, while “the University of Minnesota has zero people who teach the history of Minnesota or the Midwest.”
Since the nation's earliest days, the Midwest's impact has felt on everything from westward expansion of U.S. territory and ideals to the industrial might needed to win two world wars and make the U.S. an economic powerhouse. (And don't forget feeding the nation and the much of the world.)
“People are not aware of the rich history the Midwest has. They need to be reminded of it,” Lauck says. “People get tired of how ridiculous our culture is, what's on TV, what's being beamed into the brains of our children. For an alternative, we can start with learning about our history, understanding who you are, where you're from, what your identity is. I'm asking people to take a second look.”
The Midwest isn't likely to become Hollywood hip or New York trendy. But a second look at the region finds something far more important.