The Magazine

The Middle Way

Recognizing a neglected landscape in American history.

Apr 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 29 • By JAMES SEATON
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The importance of the Midwest to American and even world history is, one would think, obvious and uncontroversial. Jon Lauck points out that in the decades after the American Revolution, the Midwest “proved to those who were skeptical that this republic could expand and that republican sentiments could persist and intensify.” Later, “the Midwest tipped the scales in the Civil War, preventing the early demise of the American republic that skeptics had anticipated, and proved essential to the Anglo-American cooperation that stanched the spread of appalling forms of twentieth-century tyranny.” 

Irwin, Nebraska

Irwin, Nebraska

andrew filer

If the United States has grown “large, rich, and powerful,” it is in large part because of the agricultural and industrial development of the Midwest. 

Despite the region’s evident significance, all too many academic historians have treated the Midwest as a sort of “lost region,” Lauck observes, seemingly considering it inconsequential to American history except as the home of anti-intellectualism, anti-Semitism, and general xenophobia. This dismissal of the Midwest can be traced back at least to H. L. Mencken’s condemnation of the “booboosie” in the 1920s, but it found new life in the influential writings of Richard Hofstadter (Anti-intellectualism in American Life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics) and in the works of practitioners of “New Western History, cultural Marxism, and other related modes of historical interpretation prominent in recent decades.”

In reply, Lauck makes a case for the nearly forgotten “Prairie Historians” of the first half of the 20th century. Many of the Prairie Historians were inspired by Frederick Jackson Turner, whose famous “frontier thesis” asserted the importance of the West for the development of American democracy. Lauck emphasizes, however, that recognition of the significance of the Midwest for American history has little or nothing to do with the validity of the frontier thesis itself. The Prairie Historians were not ideologues seeking to advance sweeping interpretations of world or national history, but rather students of local and state chronicles who “planted themselves in the archives and worked hard” in the “pursuit of facts and evidence in order to advance an objective interpretation of the past.” They founded scholarly organizations such as the Mississippi Valley Historical Association to further the study of Midwestern history, and founded or aided Midwestern state historical societies. 

The group included figures such as Clarence Alvord (1868-1928) from the University of Illinois; Benjamin Shambaugh (1871-1940) from the University of Iowa; Orrin Libby (1864-1952) at the University of North Dakota; and Solon Buck (1884-1962), who taught at several Midwestern universities and served as the longtime superintendent of the Minnesota Historical Society. In the 21st century, the Prairie Historians would likely be classified as conservative or right-wing, since they believed that the “progress of American democratic institutions and thought” combined with American “capitalism and economic growth .  .  . to create the exceptional nature of American development.” Today it seems to be conservatives who accept the notion of American exceptionalism, but Lauck points out that, in their day, the Prairie Historians themselves were generally on the political left. In the 1930s, they were “mostly liberal and supportive of the New Deal.”

Lauck does not attempt to glorify the group, observing that they were “not immune to the pettiness of academic politics,” and pointing out that by 21st-century standards, the Prairie Historians gave too little attention “to the role of women, African Americans, and workers.” He also notes, however, that they were well aware of the problem of bias in writing history and did their best to combat it by eschewing large-scale historical theorizing and, instead, relying as much as possible on “hard work and exhaustive archival digging” while adopting “a posture of prairie pragmatism toward the obvious limits of objectivity and historical knowledge.” 

Such pursuits may seem old-fashioned to postmodernists, but Lauck insists that

The Prairie Historians’ focus on collecting evidence and attempting to interpret that evidence as fairly and objectively as possible still constitutes the best organizational model for the discipline of history.