The Middle Way
Recognizing a neglected landscape in American history.
Apr 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 29 • By JAMES SEATON
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.