Review of Jon K. Lauck's "The Lost Region"


Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad.

The Lost Region:  Toward a Revival of Midwestern History
by Jon K. Lauck
(Iowa City:  University of Iowa Press, 2013).

In this volume for the series Iowa and the Midwest Experience, historian and attorney Jon K. Lauck makes an eloquent and passionate brief for restoring the history of the Midwest to a central place in American historiography.  Lauck observes that in contrast with regions such as the South, New England, and Far West, the Midwest has almost disappeared from the history classroom, monograph, and scholarly journal. Arguing that the Midwest is almost quintessentially American, Lauck insists that restoring the region to a more prominent place in the American history canon would provide a degree of unity to historical discourse which has been missing from recent scholarly emphasis upon the topics of race, gender, and class. Lauck also seeks to resurrect the historical reputations of Frederick Jackson Turner and other Prairie Historians of the early to mid-twentieth century, including John D. Hicks, Frederick Merk, and Clarence A. Alvord. Asserting that despite some shortcomings reflecting the times in which they lived, Lauck maintains that these scholars offer models of engagement which may prove useful to contemporary historians. There is considerable merit to Lauck’s contention that the Midwest, a more diverse region than often assumed, deserves more attention from today’s scholars; however, returning the Prairie Historians to the forefront of scholarship may be a tougher sale.

Borrowing from Turner’s definition of the Middle West in a 1901 essay, Lauck views the region as including the states of Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, although the author acknowledges that he focuses upon the prairie Midwest as opposed to the areas more connected to forests and industry around the Great Lakes. In making his case that the Midwest plays a pivotal role in American history, Lauck writes, “The Midwest matters, in short, because it helps explain the course of foundational events in North America, the origins of the American Revolution, the political and social foundations of the American republic, the outcome of the Civil War, and the emergence of the United States as a world power that shaped global events” (14). Lauck goes on to argue that the settlement of the Midwestern frontier connects the region with the concept of American exceptionalism “or the view that the political and social development of the United States was unique and a decisive break from Europe” (25). While some contemporary American historians may question the concept of American exceptionalism and Lauck’s positive reading of American capitalism, there is considerable merit to his assertion that the Midwestern offers an avenue of inquiry into essential questions and events which have shaped the American experience.

Lauck also champions the Prairie Historians such as Turner who have been out of favor among recent American historians. This support is not unqualified as Lauck acknowledges many of the personal and academic limitations of these scholars. For example, some reflected the prejudices of early twentieth-century America, making disparaging remarks regarding women, Jews, and African Americans. Their scholarship often ignored essential questions of race and gender as well as the emergence of the American working class. While they may have reflected the prejudices of their times, Lauck also insists that the Prairie Historians were a diverse lot whose politics were mostly progressive and embraced the reforms of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Most of them were the sons of Midwestern farmers and demonstrated a sense of pride in their region and youthful experience as agricultural laborers. In addition, Lauck extols the willingness of the Prairie Historians to work with the schools and state historical societies, often sharing their insights as public intellectuals. Lauck praises their long hours of research in the archives, but he finds even more impressive their books which were accessible to general readers. Here, Lauck does seem to offer a compelling critique of many contemporary scholars whose research and writing are often about the masses, but whose use of academic jargon and the tendency to write only for other scholars in the field make their work often out of touch with the very subjects of their study. Also, greater engagement with the schools and historical societies would assure that the fruits of academic research would be better shared with the American public and foster greater democratization of historical knowledge.

Lauck also bemoans the evolution of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, founded in 1907, into the Organization of American Historians. While the need for an American organization of historians apart from the more global focus of the American Historical Association appears to be a logical move, the growing disappearance of Midwestern scholarly journals and historical associations is a cause for concern, for, as Lauck persuasively argues, the region does offer many insights into American history. In The Lost Region, Lauck seeks to model the approach of the Prairie Historians. His short book is certainly well documented, indicating considerable familiarity with Midwestern historiography and archival sources containing the correspondence and personal wrings of the Prairie Historians. In addition, Lauck writes in a clear matter which is accessible to both scholars and general readers. However, Lauck is also concerned that American historiography is missing the grand master narratives crafted by the Prairie Historians. He believes that the contemporary scholarly emphasis upon issues of race, gender, and class create a sense of division rather than unity in understanding the American experience. Yet, this more diverse orientation may actually provide us with a greater appreciation for the complexity of the nation. Just as the Prairie Historians relied upon their Midwestern agricultural background to move scholarship beyond the narrow confines of the Eastern seaboard, younger scholars from diverse gender, ethnic, class, and sexual orientation backgrounds will provide insights from their unique perspectives that will broaden the historical profession. 

This sense of diversity is also directly applicable to the Midwest which has a rapidly growing Latino/a population.  In addition, the region is hardly as orthodoxly conservative as some might assume, for many Midwestern states are pivotal swing states in national elections. The region also has a rich tradition of leftist and progressive politics which Lauck largely ignores in his analysis. He does consider the Midwestern legacy of Populism, but the history of the region also includes the Non-Partisan League that pioneered state socialism in North Dakota. Numerous socialists were also elected to municipal and state offices in the region before the First World War. While the Midwestern socialist tradition was often related to European immigration, as was the region’s history of agricultural co-operatives, the leader of the Socialist Party in early twentieth-century America was popular Indiana native son, Eugene V. Debs. Alliances between farmers and urban workers were pioneered in Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party, while organized labor has historically enjoyed strong support in a number of Midwestern states. Thus, attention to the history of the Midwest may not produce the type of synthesis which Lauck seems to assume.

While the historical profession may have moved beyond the tweed jackets and pipe smoking of the Prairie Historians, Lauck should be commended for reminding us of their contributions and for encouraging historians to re-examine the role of the Midwest in the making of America. And Lauck is not totally pessimistic regarding the future of Midwestern scholarship, pointing to the significant work done in environmental history by University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon. The Lost Region deserves a wide readership and should stimulate debate among historians about restoring the Midwest region to American historiography.

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