From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920–1965
by Jon K. Lauck.
University of Iowa Press, 2017.
Paperback, 246 pages, $27.50.
No single person has done more to revitalize the study of the Midwest than Jon Lauck. Lauck played the central organizing role in creating and publicizing the new Midwestern History Association founded in 2014 and dedicated to the idea of revitalizing the study of this important region. A year later, the Middle West Review was published by the University of Nebraska Press, and there have been three conferences on Midwestern history at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. For Lauck, who grew up on a farm in South Dakota and earned his PhD at the University of Iowa, the Midwest has been central to his work and development as a scholar. When an assessment is made of how the regionalism embodied by the Midwest still tells the nation important things about democracy and identity, Lauck will be mentioned as a key figure in the revitalization of Midwestern history, one as seminal as some of the individual scholars he profiles in this powerfully analyzed and researched intellectual history.
Lauck’s book is about the importance of regional identity in the shaping of the past and in the literary canon of American letters. At one time, the Midwest was seen as “the heart of the republic” and the “seat of the culture of the universe.” Midwestern writers and historians focused attention on the region and developed a voice that impacted the scholarly and literary communities of the nation. The publication of a review of “revolt from the village books” in the 1921 Nation magazine by Columbia University professor Carl Van Doren, changed that equation, instead instigating a literature opposed to the study of Midwestern ideas and the contribution of small towns. The thesis of the literature Van Doren surveyed—Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio—showed the theme of a revolt against the provincialism and cultural rot of Midwestern life. This theme was incorporated into the literature on the Midwest throughout the 1920s, from Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday, the first general survey of the 1920s, to Helen and Staughton Lynd’s study of Muncie, Indiana, Middletown. The shift to an urban American intelligentsia symbolized by revolution against tradition, the Lost Generation filled with ennui after the war, and the emergence of New York’s Greenwich Village as the new symbolic home of American letters, contributed to the collapse of Midwestern regionalism. The staying power of the myth of Van Doren’s “revolt of the village” has had profound implications for the study and place of the Midwest in history.
The national response to the Great Depression emanating from Washington and the failure of the Midwestern farm economy in the Depression years added to the woes of maintaining a robust Midwestern regionalism. Lauck’s treatment of the New Deal and the shift of regional dominance to the West (and the rise of Western history brought on by the Depression and World War II—think John Steinbeck) encapsulates the problem regionalist writers—such as Hamlin Garland—had in propagating the virtues of the region in the climate of depression and war. The continued depopulation of the Midwest and the declining importance of small-town America in the Cold War years added to the problem of Midwestern identity and regional studies.
Lauck also describes the efforts of Midwestern historians to develop and to sustain their regional identity. In 1907 the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (MVHA) was formed, along with its journal, the Mississippi Valley Historical Review. Lauck recounts how until World War II thejournal published the work of Midwestern historians funded and sustained by Midwestern universities and historical societies. But the Midwest was the heart of American isolationism, and it continued to be depicted as backward and reactionary by supposedly more sophisticated literary communities. World War II and the Cold War shifted resources away from regional studies to “Western Civilization” and area studies. The Midwest continued to be seen as a reactionary and provincial place in the politics of the 1950s, with Joseph McCarthy representing the extremist elements politically and Russell Kirk, a proud Midwesterner who wrote from Mecosta, Michigan, propagating the conservative disposition, which were both anathema to coastal elites.
By the 1960s, with changing fashions in history—the rise of social history, cultural studies, and postmodernism, not to mention Marxist interpretations, the Mississippi Valley Historical Association changed its identity to the Organization of American Historians and the MVHR to the Journal of American History, forever shedding its identity as a regional publication and historical organization.
Lauck’s analysis of the trends in literature and historical writing that pitted Midwestern traditionalists against the cosmopolitan coastal elites, is breathtaking. He has not only encapsulated a wide intellectual history of Midwestern history and literature—in one hundred pages of text—but has also showcased the groundwork for revival. As the historical discipline itself has fractured, larger organizations like the OAH struggle to keep members and to support conferences (the unrelenting leftist stance of the OAH hasn’t helped, and the identity politics and multicultural emphases of most articles in the Journal of American History certainly add to the sense of questionable relevance for those who see American history as a worthy area of study, not one of continued racial, gender, and class conflict). The rise of a regional history—from the Southern Historical Association to the Western Historical Association—has allowed Midwestern writers and historians a place to carve out their own regional histories.
Lauck ends the book discussing the hopefulness of revitalization and how regional identities play a role in making stronger the “democratic and civil energies” of a nation. “To understand or even appreciate a region is to afford some commitment to it, to elevate it, if only slightly, and even to protect it from degrading clichés and the realm of easy cynicism.” Lauck has certainly accomplished this in his own scholarship and his own leadership in resurrecting the field of Midwestern history. This book shows the pathway from obscurity to new prominence and demonstrates a commitment and love of region as a centerpiece of historical and literary writing.
Gregory L. Schneider is a professor at Emporia State University and the author, most recently, of Rock Island Requiem: The Collapse of a Mighty Fine Line (Kansas University Press, 2013).