Monday, April 27, 2015

What is the Midwest?

There's a movement afoot among Midwestern historians to revive the region's identity. Spearheaded by South Dakota's Jon Lauck, author of The Lost Region, it aims to spark an intellectual conversation about the region's identity, history, and culture. Here's Lauck, who is also counsel to Sen. John Thune, talking with the Argus-Leader:

“When you start looking for Midwestern history, one of the first things you figure out is that there’s not much (written). In previous generations, people had a better sense of who they were. Now the culture they breathe in and absorb every day is from the national media outlets. We exist in an atmosphere that is divorced of place. Local institutions and influence have been diluted.”

They've started a new regional history association, complete with a journal and, this week, are convening for a significant academic conference at the Hauensteun Center for Presidential Studies at Michigan's Grand Valley State University. I'll be giving a keynote at the conference, providing some continental-scale context via my most recent book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.

I'm a bit of a spoiler in that I argue that, in cultural terms, there isn't really a single "Midwest" but rather three or four of them, depending on where you chose to draw the lines. This, I will suggest, is why the region has had less success in sustaining a separate identity and historical tradition than, say, "the South" or New England. People argue about what is and isn't the Midwest because they're using very different criteria.

A few very recent cases in point:

Hearing that a Midwestern history conference was taking place in Michigan, this writer at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune suggested that if there is a "Midwest", Michigan and Minnesota can't be in it at the same time. "Not to take anything away from Michigan, she writes, "but it gives recent talk about declaring Minnesota the epicenter of a new region called “North” a whiff of legitimacy."

Midwestern native John Saunders, having read American Nations and Albion's Seed, suggests there isn't one Midwest, or four (as I would argue), but five, and he's created a multi-part discussion of his regions at his blog. (It's his map at the top of this post.)

Jon Lauck and his colleagues recently held a panel discussion just to determine where the Midwest ends and the "Great Plains" begin, which I gather wasn't an easy task.

Or this extended discussion of the unsettled boundaries of Illinois' regional divisions, reposted by Reboot Illinois.

One Midwest or many, I'm looking forward to the proceedings.

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