It’s encouraging to see how scholars and writers are turning more attention to studying and commenting on issues important to the American Midwest.
After a long decline of focus on the nation’s midsection, this surge of interest is a positive change, with benefits for the region and the nation.
The Midwestern History Association, formed in 2014, holds an annual conference and promotes dialogue among regional scholars. The association produces an interdisciplinary journal, “Middle West Review” (published by the University of Nebraska Press) and hosts an essay forum called Studies in Midwestern History.
New venues have arisen for writers with a Midwestern focus, including Midwest Gothic, Old Northwest Review and the New Territory. Rust Belt Chic Press and Belt magazine address urban and industrial topics relating to Midwestern states.
An informative new book by South Dakota scholar Jon Lauck looks at how national interest in and respect for the American Midwest was once strong but then declined dramatically over the course of the 20th century, followed by this welcome renewal of interest in the 21st.
The book — “From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920-1965” — is published by the University of Iowa Press. That’s fitting, Lauck writes, since 20th-century scholars at U of I were energetic in promoting studies of the Midwest.
Observers have long noted the importance of what Abraham Lincoln in 1862 called the nation’s “vast interior region.” Lincoln, in promoting the concept of an intercontinental railroad, termed the region “the great body of the Republic,” with the two coasts as appendages.
In the 20th century, historian Bernard DeVoto wrote that the nation’s central region “must eventually be the dominant culture of the United States.” Indeed, by the early 20th century, basic habits associated with the region — hard work, modesty, sobriety, frugality, respect for religion, focus on local community — were widely considered as cultural norms for the nation.
But a host of 20th-century developments combined to erode the Midwest’s national influence, Lauck explains.
Ever-increasing urbanization shifted cultural dominance from rural parts of the country. The Midwest’s share of the U.S. population declined in the wake of growth in California and the Sunbelt. The rise of radio and television promoted a “mass culture” that, Lauck writes, “further eroded the capacity to retain regional identities.”
Trends in academia shifted strongly away from regionalist studies, to the point that scholars focusing only on Midwestern matters found themselves labeled backward-looking.
A key development was the dominance of East Coast intellectual and publishing communities that, starting in the 1920s, held up the Midwest as a cultural backwater out of step with cosmopolitan values. Carl Van Doren, editor of the Nation magazine, was a fierce, influential critic of the Midwest, deriding it as provincial and close-minded. He cheered on Midwestern writers who, he said, were no longer “faithful to the cult of the village.”
Lauck’s book provides an important service by describing the efforts by various Midwesterners in the literary and scholarly circles who pushed backed against this assault.
Examples include authors Bess Streeter Aldrich and Dorothy Canfield Fisher of Nebraska and Ruth Suckow and Herbert Quick of Iowa, as well as Iowa poet Jay Sigmund, Iowa regionalist John F. Frederick and Nebraskans involved in the Nebraska State Historical Society and Mississippi Valley Historical Association.
The ways of life in rural America needn’t be mocked, wrote Aldrich (1881-1954), who was named to the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1973: “A writer may portray some of the decent things of life around him, and reserve the privilege to call that real life too.”
Studying regional identities is just one part of understanding our country, Lauck says, but it’s a part that needs to be accorded respect.
He’s right. Understanding the Midwest and other regions gives insight into the breadth of our society, enabling us to better appreciate the full mosaic of American life and heritage.