Lost Region, Lost History?

University of Iowa Press, 2013

© University of Iowa Press, 2013.

In today’s Washington Post you will find a review of historian Jon K. Lauck’s new book, The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History. The reviewer, Michael Dirda, applauds Lauck for imploring scholars, researchers, teachers, and “ordinary” midwesterners alike to embrace and elaborate the study of their region. Yet Dirda takes at face value the meanings of historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis” and its implications for the Middle West. Over one hundred years old, Turner’s thesis presents a triumphalist view of westward expansion that papers over American indignities against Native peoples. The Midwest’s history cannot be disentangled from the dubious legacies of expansionism, colonialism, and genocide.

In a similar vein, Dirda readily accepts Lauck’s characterization of post-1960s academia as “metronormative”—focused almost exclusively on urban centers—Ivy League-centric, and wholly divorced from the experiences of midwesterners. Dirda writes that, after the freedom movements of the sixties and seventies, historians and other scholars “turned away from agrarian and small-town studies to the far sexier task of undermining ‘the dominant narrative’ of American history, demythologizing the ascendant class and directing new attention to the marginalized and forgotten. As Lauck writes, their revolutionary counter-narratives have, ironically, now become the main story in American history.” Dirda and Lauck falter on three counts here:

  1. Local studies have remained a central feature of numerous scholarly literatures—most notably the long civil rights movement and Native studies—since the 1960s.
  2. In no way have “revolutionary counter-narratives” supplanted the “dominant narrative” of U.S. history. Indeed, “textbook” accounts of U.S. history, especially treating the twentieth century, follow a distinctive arc that does little to destabilize the myth of American—and northern, including midwestern—exceptionalism. As some eminent historians of the American South have astutely noted, “suburban students from Michigan and Atlanta and New England and Virginia know much more about the civil rights movement in Mississippi and Alabama than they do about what happened in their own states and hometowns.”[1] These practices of historical cherrypicking work to absolve nonsoutherners from appraising what “revolutionary counter-narratives” mean for their own lives; for example, midwesterners inhabit some of the most segregated spaces in the country and yet seem willing to accept this stratification as natural rather than as the product of larger historical and regionally specific developments. Moreover, “revolutionary counter-narratives” and “local studies” are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, any “revival” of midwestern history must take into account the region’s changing demographic landscape and the historical processes that have helped replicate existing patterns of inequality. In this realm, scholars such as Thomas Sugrue and Leslie Schwalm have already conducted important work.
  3. Finally, Dirda and Lauck overlook the rich academic traditions apparent in the Midwest since the mid-twentieth century. The flagship universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, and other states remain proverbial powerhouses in the humanities. The history departments at these and other midwestern institutions have trained and hired some of the foremost scholars of the past half-century. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that these programs and the academics they produce are self-consciously not “Ivy League,” “East Coast,” or “urban.” For instance, a cursory glance at the scholarship and mentees of Linda Kerber, Gerda Lerner, Linda Gordon, and others illustrates the vital role that the Midwest and its greatest academic institutions have played in the women’s movement and the academic work so critical to its furtherance.

None of this is to suggest that the Midwest does not deserve more scholarly attention; to the contrary, it most certainly does. But we ought to be wary of the distinctions we draw between “midwestern history” and other academic pursuits. The study of the Midwest does not and should not “correct” the insistence of U.S. historians to consider the voices, exigencies, and subjectivities of the dispossessed. Indeed, if scholars are to be regionally “inclusive”—to seriously interrogate the meanings of the Midwest in a broader American historical context—they must seek to reconstruct the complexities and intricacies of life in the Heartland. That is, they must also be “inclusive” in other respects. A “revival” of midwestern history ought not constitute a “revival” of the “Great White Men” history that scholars, instructors, and others have worked so hard to dismantle.

[1] Matthew Lassiter and Joseph Crespino, eds., The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

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