The Middle Way
Recognizing a neglected landscape in American history.
Apr 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 29 • By JAMES SEATON
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.”
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
In making an explicit argument on behalf of the Prairie Historians, Jon Lauck also makes a largely implicit, low-key argument on behalf of the Midwest, Midwesterners, and the middle-class values whose prevalence in the region has been noted by both friendly and hostile observers at least since 1838, when Abraham Lincoln contrasted “the order loving citizens of the land of steady habits” with “the pleasure hunting masters of Southern slaves” in his Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. For the Prairie Historians, and for Lauck, the Midwest is the region “where the democratic gains of the Revolution were consolidated and extended, where slavery was prohibited, where settlers balked at the continuing power of the coastal elites, and where forms of populism sprouted.”
Lauck avoids polemics while still staking out his own position. Taking note of David Brown’s left-leaning interpretation of Midwestern history and historians Beyond the Frontier: The Midwestern Voice in American Historical Writing (2009), Lauck goes out of his way to praise the book as a “wonderfully rendered portrait of one strain of the midwestern historical mind.” Brown’s work is commendable, but it “is best seen as an account of a prominent midwestern tradition of leftist historical writing” that presents “a midwestern historical tradition, not the midwestern historical tradition.” Lauck does not claim that he himself is presenting the voice of the Midwest, only that the Prairie Historians represent “another tradition . . . which also brought a genuinely midwestern voice to history.”
Lauck carefully avoids connecting his defense of the Prairie Historians and the Midwest with current cultural/political debates; but some of the possible implications of his argument are made explicit by Fred Siegel in his Revolt Against the Masses, published last year (see “Opiate of the Elites,” The Weekly Standard, Feb. 10, 2014). Like Siegel’s polemic, The Lost Region affirms (in its own understated way) the sort of attitudes and ideas that most American intellectuals, whether they style themselves Marxists, Freudians, or members of the literary-cultural vanguard, have reflexively dismissed as “bourgeois.” As Frederick Crews once observed in explaining the pantheon of Partisan Review, the longtime house journal of the New York intellectuals, “What united Marx and Proust, Nietzsche and Joyce, Freud and Camus, was their equidistance from Iowa.”
Siegel argues at length that modern liberalism, despite its claim to support the average American against the alleged predations of 1-percenters like the Koch brothers, is defined by its “antipathy to conventional, middle-class America.” Lauck, in contrast, is not much interested in criticizing, let alone condemning, the sources of the contempt for the Midwest that his book quietly opposes. Lauck is content simply to affirm the focus of the Prairie Historians on “the development of democracy and small-scale capitalism in the Midwest.”
For Lauck, the Midwest provides an example that speaks for itself. An unbiased study of the history of the region, he suggests, demonstrates the ways in which middle-class values, democracy, and the market can reinforce and nourish one another. If the Midwest is a “lost region” for today’s academic historians, it may be because the lessons its history teaches are only too obvious.
James Seaton, professor of English at Michigan State, is the editor of George Santayana’s The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States.