Q&A: The case for Midwestern history

No region has suffered more from historical neglect than the Midwest.

Editor’s Note: Mr. Lauck’s article is followed by a Q&A conducted by John Hinderaker, president of Center of the American Experiment.

Fears about the deepening ignorance of our national history in the United States are becoming more intense. Too many kids, it is frequently reported, think that the Civil War happened during the 1980s and that Thomas Jefferson was a sit-com star. A republic, dependent on an educated citizenry which can smoke out fake news and biased information, cannot long endure under such conditions.

Portions of the chattering class acknowledge the deficits in our historical awareness, which can be counted as a good thing. But one angle on the history crisis that has received less attention is the diminishment of professional attention to American regions and the local particularities of American life, an aspect of the crisis that might, if better understood, propel us toward a broader solution.

No region has suffered more from historical neglect than the Midwest, which, in comparison to other regions, receives much less support for studying its history from its regional universities. Many universities in the Midwest don’t even offer a course on Midwestern history, a failure of basic leadership in the region that would be unheard of in the South or West. The University of Minnesota (U of M), for example, despite the institution’s broad reach and thousands of employees, does not offer a class on the history of Minnesota or the Midwest.

It wasn’t always so. In 1907, several historians from Midwestern universities and historical societies met in Lincoln, Nebraska and launched the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (MVHA) to promote the study of the Midwest. They were aided by prominent historians in states such as Illinois and historical societies in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Solon Buck, for example, who was the director of the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS), was an active leader of this group, as was U of M historian Theodore Blegen, who made the case for studying the region in his book “Grassroots History” (1947). Even the president of the U of M, Guy Stanton Ford, was a staunch supporter of Midwestern history. One of Ford’s predecessors, U of M president William Watts Folwell, even wrote a massive history of the state of Minnesota.

This tight focus on Midwestern history included support for university presses that published books about the region, including the University of Minnesota Press, which was launched in 1925. It also included writing programs designed to allow local and regional writers to hone their craft. A unifying goal of these efforts was the advance of cultural regionalism, or the idea that the varied regions of the United States deserved to have a homegrown cultural tradition and not one dictated to them by the East Coast. Midwesterners such as Hamlin Garland, who matured in Wisconsin, Iowa, and South Dakota, became famous by resisting the cultural dominance of the East.

The Mississippi Valley Historical Association purposely held its meetings in the Midwest (its second meeting, following the first meeting held in Lincoln, Nebraska, was held at Lake Minnetonka, west of the Twin Cities). This created a focus on the region, a degree of mutual support among regional historians, and an esprit de corps. The organization thrived for decades, but after World War II several younger members, mostly from outside the region, thought the MVHA was too “provincial.” As a result, and by way of some sly bureaucratic machinations, the old MVHA was declared a “national” organization.

There were several advantages to this new status for the newly-minted Organization of American Historians, but it cast aside decades of tradition and left historians interested in the Midwest without a scholarly home. While the Southern Historical Association and the Western History Association remained strong and were growing, regional history in the Midwest shriveled. For a half-century, the Midwest had no professional history organization focused on the region’s history and thus, the region was greatly understudied. The region became a symbol, writ small, of the broader collapse of historical knowledge.

The principles at stake here are not insignificant. For history to thrive again, it needs to connect to the lived experience of people, which a relatable and tangible regional history can do. Educators need to understand the natural human desire for rootedness and the need to know one’s own story, a need which a localized and relevant history can serve. This is particularly important in an age of anxiety over the disconnectedness generated by life online. One cure for the disorientation of cyber-life is to dig down into the tangible realities of one’s place.Understanding your own place may also dilute the intensity of the narcissism generated by social media. Instead of being diverted by your Facebook “friends” and their trips to Malibu and Miami, knowing your history causes you to think about your place and to attach value to it. Knowing the history of your particular place makes you want to preserve it and make it better. It makes you more likely to run for school board and less likely to buy a new pair of shoes on Amazon.

For the Midwest in recent years, there are a few encouraging signs of historical recovery. After an impromptu initial gathering at a bar in Hudson, Wisconsin and some subsequent planning meetings, the Midwestern History Association was formed 2014, filling a void left by the demise of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association in the 1960s. New journals such as Middle West Review and Studies in Midwestern History have also been launched. The Hauenstein Center at Grand Valley State University in Michigan has stepped up to host the annual conferences of the MHA, another one of which is being planned for June 6, 2018 in Grand Rapids.

While this is surely progress for the Midwest, for the nation at large we still face a yawning void of historical illiteracy that is weakening the republic and its institutions. Somebody somewhere in some position of authority began to argue that our kids should be taught less history or less history that is critical to the workings of constitutional government. We need to figure out where that went wrong and fix it. Minnesota and the Midwest is a great place to start. Our future history depends on it.

JOHN HINDERAKER: You’ve had an interesting career as a lawyer, a historian, and to some extent, a political figure. Tell us about some of the things you’ve done.

JON LAUCK: I started off with a love of history. After receiving an undergraduate degree in South Dakota, I went to the University of Iowa to get my Ph.D. in history, thinking I would make a career out of that. My dissertation was on the life and times of Karl E. Mundt. I was 21 and didn’t know much about the history profession. I thought that seemed like a great project. But I was completely disabused of that notion. People were like, “No one cares about Karl Mundt.”

Someone mentioned Karl Mundt to me the other day. I hadn’t heard that name in decades.

Maybe he’s making a little come back here. He’s from Madison and after a 35-year career in Congress got mixed up in some interesting things. Anyway, people don’t write those kind of history books anymore. So I moved on to a different project. My dad was a farmer in South Dakota, and I always heard complaints about the meat packers and the green traders and Cargill, etc. I did an economic analysis of farm markets in the Midwest since World War II, and tried to determine the extent to which they were anti-competitive by various measures and anti-trust test, etc.

In the process of that, I got interested in anti-trust law, and there was a person on my dissertation committee who wrote the top anti-trust textbook in the country. He co-authored it with Tom Sullivan, the dean of the University of Minnesota Law School. So I decided to go to the U of M Law School and study anti-trust law.

I had decided that the job market was very weak in history, which is even worse now. I moved back to South Dakota to practice at the state’s largest law firm, which I did for three or four years, until out of the blue I got an offer to join the history department at South Dakota State University (SDSU). But then my friend, John Thune, won the Senate race in 2004.

Which you later wrote a book about.

That’s right. So, I helped John with that race and it was a wild race. You know, Newsweek and Roll Call said the South Dakota senate race was the second biggest race in the country in 2004. It became a $50 million race. It became a great subject for a book. Then SDSU asked me to teach a course on the history of South Dakota. I noticed there weren’t any good books on the settlement and development and the growth of South Dakota, so I wrote a book on it called Prairie Republic and focused on the political culture of Dakota Territory and how South Dakota became a state. It was a great project.

In 2013, you wrote a book called The Lost Region about the neglected field of Midwestern history.

The book Prairie Republic came out in 2010. That led directly to my book The Lost Region. Here’s the connection. I did a demographic analysis of the people who settled in South Dakota. They weren’t moving from Florida or Mexico or China. They were moving into South Dakota from the Midwest, and they brought with them their political culture from Midwestern states like Indiana and Wisconsin and Minnesota. I wanted to know more about what that meant and how it shaped the political culture. I discovered there was very little written about the history of the Midwest. Almost nothing. So, I wrote this book in 2013, The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History, which was designed to get the Midwest back on the historical map.

How is that going?

Very well. We started on a lark at a Great Plains history conference that was meeting in Hudson, Wisconsin in the fall of 2013. I just asked a bunch of people if they were interested in why is there no Midwestern history? We had a panel about it. Then we moved to Buxter’s Bar in Hudson to discuss it more. I thought a couple people would show up, but like 35 historians did. They were very interested, so we formed the Midwestern History Association. We formed a partnership with the Hauenstein Center at Grand Valley State in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we have a conference every summer. It’s really taken off. We’re starting to see the fruits of all that effort in terms of books and articles and new journals about the Midwest.

Until you and your colleagues came along, the study of Midwestern history had just been virtually neglected, even at major Midwestern universities. Why do you think that is?

Back before World War II, there was an organized effort to study the Midwest. There were major figures at places like the University of Minnesota and Wisconsin and Michigan whose sole mission was to study the Midwest. All those people retired and moved on and were never replaced. So, the field dropped to zilch at these major, Big Ten, research universities. We still have yet to create much of a beachhead on that front.

I met with the chair of the history department at the University of Minnesota a month or so ago. There is no one who teaches the history of Minnesota or the Midwest at the University of Minnesota, which, to me, is a huge failing. The University of Georgia, in contrast, has 10 people teaching the history of the south and Georgia. The next phase of this effort will be to get at least a couple of these institutions to take this field seriously, so that if a young person wants to write a dissertation about the history of the Midwest, they’ll have a place to go.

What makes this just doubly unfortunate, in my opinion, is that in general the history of the Midwestern states is a history of success. It’s the Midwest where the really positive, successful civic institutions were developed.

That’s really not where the energy is now in the historical profession. There’s a lot of interest now in race, class, and gender. I don’t see those declining in significance in coming decades and probably they’ll become more prominent. But I’ve tried to argue that we need to take regions seriously. You know, like you said, places that have been very successful and have a dense civic culture and a lot of social capital; those would be good places to know more about. But that›s not really what historians are drawn to at the moment.

Your most recent book is From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism 1920-1965. Tell us about it.

It is a follow up to The Lost Region. I wanted to do more to explain why Midwestern regional study, both literary and historical, had fallen to such a low level. The title, From Warm Center to Ragged Edge comes from Fitzgerald, from Gatsby in particular.

Nick Carraway, the main character in Gatsby, is from St. Paul. He fights in World War I, moves to New York and gets involved in the roaring ‘20s. At one point he says he didn’t want to move back to Minnesota because he saw it as the ragged edge of the universe. It was boring; nothing happened there. He wanted a more exciting life. But by the end of the book, after seeing all he did and the death of Gatsby, he begins to think of Minnesota and the Midwest as the warm center of the world, where he wants to return and live a good life. I thought as a title it conveyed that there is a lot to be admired in the Midwest, and a lot to be studied. We need to move past this ragged edge stage of its history and get back to a point where it’s more center stage in American history. I think a lot of people have forgotten that the Midwest was once regarded as the center of American culture and literature.

In the decades after the Civil War, the Midwest was ascendant. It was the place where our presidents came from. About eight presidents in a row. It’s where the economy was the strongest. It’s where major corporations developed, like Ford Motor Company, for example. It’s where there was a huge amount of work done to promote civic institutions.

The writer Sherwood Anderson said in about 1914 that he expected the Midwest to remain the center of American culture for centuries to come. Unfortunately, that’s not how it unfolded. We now have a culture that is dominated essentially by Hollywood and Manhattan.

Why do you think that happened?

The prominence of mass culture is something that just diluted the older regional forces in the country in the years after World War II. I think television played a big role in it. In the late 1940s, two percent of Americans had a TV. By 1960, 95 percent had television. Most of the television shows were made in Hollywood and Manhattan. Television’s hold on American culture remained until the coming of the internet, which was a disruptive force that’s allowed space in our culture now for alternative cultural forms to develop. It really opens up new alleys for artists and writers and historians in the Midwest. I don’t think the Midwestern History Association would have been able to grow and thrive without Facebook and Twitter.

I also think there was a real failure of leadership in the Midwest. Big Ten institutions should have kept these fields alive, these fields of regional study, like Midwestern history, but they chose not to. That’s a failure of leadership from the top down at these institutions. They need to take their region more seriously. Unfortunately, a lot of these people who end up as president of, say, the University of Minnesota, are automatically thinking, “How do I become president of Cornell or Berkeley?” I just think they need to focus on their region more and understand the regional roots of their institutions a little bit better.

About the Author: Jon Lauck is the founding president of the Midwestern History Association and a contributor at The American Project at Pepperdine School of Public Policy. His new book on the Midwest, “From Warm Center to Ragged Edge,” was recently published by University of Iowa Press.