Reviving Midwest History

tags: Midwest history



Michael Dirda reviews books every Thursday for the Washington Post.

THE LOST REGION
Toward a Revival of Midwestern History
By Jon K. Lauck
Univ. of Iowa. 166 pp. Paperback, $35

In the East Coast imagination, the Midwest is populated largely by hicks, and life there is about as exciting as a field of corn. Instead of having a vital, rewarding career as, say, chief assistant to the assistant chief in the personnel department of the Federal Bureau of This or That, Midwesterners plow fields, work in factories and mills, operate small businesses. They belong to the Grange or the Rotarians, go in for church suppers and community singing. Most of them, of course, physically resemble the stern, homespun couple in Grant Wood ’s “American Gothic.” Garrison Keillor is their laureate. Their idea of a good time is a Saturday night hoedown.

Some of this is actually true, or partly true. But Midwesterners, as Jon K. Lauck stresses in a plea for renewed attention to this “lost region” and its history, aren’t so much provincial as they are populist, staunchly democratic, rooted in their communities and believers in individualism and self-reliance. In our standard accounts of early American history, we tend to emphasize the sophisticated East and the troubled South, yet as Ralph Waldo Emerson observed with his usual shrewdness, “Europe extends to the Alleghenies, while America lies beyond.” The fundamental spirit of our nation was forged on the frontier....

Much of “The Lost Region” actually focuses on Turner’s immediate heirs, the early 20th-century group that Lauck dubs the Prairie Historians. These scholars came from small towns in Kansas, Iowa or the Dakotas, they taught at the university of Wisconsin or Minnesota and they believed in regional history. Their thinking and studies “focused on law, farming, Populism, land and geography, and social history.” Working in state and city archives or with small historical societies, they built prize-winning books from the ground up, relying on hard data more than grand theorizing....




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