Historian Jon Lauck discusses Midwestern history

Midwestern history may be one of America’s great untold stories, if attorney and historian Jon Lauck is right about it – and he believes more historians need to set to the task of examining that past. An adviser to U.S. Sen. John Thune, Lauck published a new book on Dec. 1 through the University of Iowa Press. It’s called, The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History.

Below is a Q-and-A interview with Lauck about his arguments in the book, which has already been hailed by Deirdre McCloskey, distinguished professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, as “the definitive manifesto for a new Midwestern historiography.”

Jon Lauck grew up on a farm near Madison and attended South Dakota State University in Brookings for his undergraduate degree and then earned his Ph.D. in history at the University of Iowa. He also has a law degree from the University of Minnesota.

Lauck’s book retails for $35. Find it at area bookstores or order it directly from the University of Iowa Press by calling 800-621-2736. Or order it online at www.uiowapress.org.

Q: You title your book, The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History. That’s evocative of how journalist Eric Sevareid in his autobiography described his home state of North Dakota – “a large, rectangular blank spot in the nation’s mind.” Why does it seem that we in the Midwest are so forgettable?

A: It says, in part, that people in the middle of the country generally aren’t in charge of determining what is remembered and what is forgotten. People in the midlands, it seems to me, need to be a bit more assertive when it comes to their place in the broader culture. That includes doing more to promote the field of Midwestern history.

Q: You observe near the close of your book that “a Google search returns 20 times more material about the history of New England compared to the Midwest and nearly 350 times as much material about the history of the American South.” Do you see reasons for this imbalance?

A: New England and the Old South are well-defined entities in comparison to the Midwest, so that bolsters their identity. Those regions are also much more conscious of studying their heritage and history and conveying it to younger generations. The Midwest isn’t good at that, as the collapse of Midwestern history demonstrates.

Q: You allude to the fact that at the time of Jefferson’s election to the presidency in 1800, half of white American men owned land compared to only 10 percent in England. And in this same passage you cite Jefferson’s conviction that expanding “the empire of liberty” to the lands west of the original 13 colonies would “provide new sources of renovation, should its principles at any time degenerate in those portions of our country which gave them birth.” Do you take Jefferson seriously on this, and if so, do you see a correlation between land ownership and democracy?

A: Yes, I do. I think widespread land ownership is one of the keys to the growth of the Midwest and the entrenchment of its democratic qualities. When the old decentralized agrarian economy which defined the Midwest began to fade, many considered it a fearful thing. If you really want to dig into the details of what happened to the Midwestern family farming tradition, see my first book “American Agriculture and the Problem of Monopoly” (University of Nebraska Press, 2000). Jefferson, as you note, took seriously the value of the interior regions and the dangers of concentrating power on the coasts. This is worth remembering.

Q: Somewhat related: Though you admit the borders are “porous,” you stick to Frederick Jackson Turner’s definition of the Midwest as comprising Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. We wonder what these states have in common except perhaps that they collectively hold the nation’s greatest reserves of good farmland. What else holds them together? Is this part of the reason the region is so “porous”? Here in the middle of South Dakota, for instance, some of us find ourselves more comfortable to think of ourselves as part of the Great Plains.

A: These are the states of the Old Northwest plus their related cousins from the Louisiana Purchase which are defined as the “corn belt” and united by the timing and simultaneity and similarity of their settlement. They also include a great diversity of people and topographies and economies, another characteristic that unites them. But yes, the edges are ragged -- West of Pierre is certainly the Great Plains and the southern half of Missouri is certainly Southern, for examples.

Q: You cite an assertion by the historian Benjamin Shambaugh that the frontier was “a great leveler” that made men “plain, common and unpretentious” and “really democratic.” You seem to find this especially apt in the Midwest. Can you explain?

A: In comparison to New York or Hollywood, where vanity and materialism are considered hip, or to the South, where a certain recognition of social classes still persists, people in the Midwest tend to be more humble and they tend to resist emphasizing social distinctions. This is partly explained by the historical development of the Midwest. The country probably would be better off if we were more familiar with this history.

Q: You leave us with a comment from the historian Andrew Cayton that the “Midwest” label “tends to conjure images that alienate rather than attract contemporary scholars.” You seem to believe he’s right. Can you explain?

A: The dominant trend in the historical profession in recent decades has been to take the old theory of “cultural hegemony” and apply it to questions of race, class, and gender. The American Midwest isn’t an ideal place to do this, so the region tends to be ignored. The historical profession, like other fields of study, is given to trends and fads. To put it mildly, the Midwest is not considered trendy. But trendiness should not be the value by which we judge historical inquiry. The “significance” of a subject, to borrow a phrase from Frederick Jackson Turner, is a better measure of good history, regardless of its trendiness.

Q: You coin the term “Prairie Historians” for the historians of an earlier generation who really were interested in telling the region’s history. Is there any common unifying feature you find in these historians?

A: A very common characteristic was that these historians of the Midwest tended to be from farms and small towns in the Midwest and so they took great interest in their region. The massive decline in the number of people raised on farms and in small towns in the Midwest has obviously had a major impact on the size of the potential pool of young history Ph.D.s who might make a career out of studying the Midwest. Among the founding generation of Prairie Historians, I might add, was the historian Doane Robinson, who had a major impact on the launch of South Dakota history as a field of study and who was a long-time resident of Pierre.

Q: You mention your friend and colleague, historian John Miller of South Dakota State University, as a self-described “guerrilla scholar.” What does he mean by that, and do we need more of those?

A: Miller is a guerrilla scholar in the sense that he has no larger, organized army of Midwestern historians to join to help advance the broader cause of Midwestern history. He largely has to fight alone, without the support of strong allies, and live off the land, scrounging for resources and making the best of the situation. It’s much easier to make advances when you have allies who offer support in the form of fellowships, regional journals, and endowed professorships at major research institutions, but the historical profession at present devotes those resources to other fronts besides Midwestern history. Those who want to advance the cause of Midwestern history will need to make the case for a larger allocation of these resources.

Q: It seems to us that Frederick Jackson Turner hovers like a guardian angel over your work. Can you comment on his influence on you and other Prairie Historians?

A: Turner, a product of a small town in Wisconsin, was the first to make a strong case for paying attention to the Midwest and breaking the monopoly of Eastern historians on the profession. He came of age as the University of Wisconsin boomed as a research institution so during his many years in Madison he was able to recruit many young scholars into the field who admired his emphasis on studying the American interior. At present, unfortunately, Turner is often derided and lampooned for being “old-fashioned” by people who too often don’t understand his great accomplishments. I would again add that Doane Robinson, before he came to Pierre, also grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, just like Turner.

Q: You note that two-thirds of the places named for Abraham Lincoln are in the Midwest. You seem to hint that there is more at work there than the fact that Lincoln grew up in Indiana and Illinois. What are you suggesting?

A: I think that Lincoln was once widely recognized as a direct product of the old small town culture of the American Midwest and that region recognized Lincoln for putting the region on the map. This aspect of Lincoln is much less discussed these days.

Q: You have a nice turn of phrase when you speak of the Midwest as nurturing “interior resistance to the coastal dominance” of politics and culture. That’s similar to the way cultural figures such as the Iowa-born novelist Frederick Manfred spoke of not being taken seriously by literary critics in the East and you tell us it’s also the way Frederick Jackson Turner viewed his great thesis on the frontier in American history. Elsewhere you note the historian John Barnhart’s argument that people moved to the Midwest to escape the domination of the planter class on the coast. How serious is this perceived struggle between eastern dominance and interior resistance?

A: Manfred was from a small town in Iowa and spent much of his adult life in Minnesota and South Dakota and always made it a point to remain in and of the rural Midwest. He thought this turned off New York publishers and limited the reach of his literature and I’m quite sure he was right. But it shouldn’t have. People from all parts of our nation should have strong voices in the broader culture. It’s a major problem for our republic that interior voices such as Manfred’s are relatively ignored while a few rich people in Manhattan and Hollywood decide what passes for culture. That’s an unhealthy imbalance that needs to be addressed. Knowing the history of the Midwest is a good first step.

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