American Talk

New regional spotlights on the Midwest

If the Midwest has been overlooked by the rest of the nation, we really can’t complain. Mostly, Midwesterners ignore the region themselves. No major university teaches its history or economy. Few books probe its plight or its heart. No regional magazine has made a serious attempt to reflect the reality of its life.

Until now. The Midwest, as a region, is finally getting some attention at home, with a scholarly association and two new magazines.

This isn’t enough. But it’s a start.

A group of Midwestern scholars have founded the Midwestern History Association and will publish a biannual journal, the Middle West Review. As the association’s name implies, their work will deal mostly with history and less with other disciplines. Mostly, both seem to be spinoffs of the work of Jon K. Lauck, a South Dakota lawyer and historian who wrote a recent book, The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History.

“We think it’s time for the Midwest to stand up for itself,” Lauck says.

He’s right, but it will be interesting to see how he and the Association define the Midwest. The scope of his book reflects his Great Plains background. The Review is published by the University of Nebraska Press and edited by a doctoral student in history at the University of Iowa named Paul Mokrzyck.

No knock on the Plains or Iowa — that’s my own home turf. But there’s much more to the Midwest than the agriculture-based steppes, and I hope their work reflects it.

The other magazine, by contrast, has emerged from Cleveland, which is mostly industry, less ag. It’s called Belt Magazine — as in Rust Belt. It's an online publication, has been around for a year, seems to be doing first-rate work, but may be as parochial in its view of the Midwest as those Plains States historians.

The editor, an Oberlin scholar named Anne Trubek, was quoted in an interview in The American Prospect as dividing the region into the agricultural Midwest and the industrial Midwest. She herself comes from Madison, Wisconsin, which she places in the “agricultural Midwest”: this may be a surprise to people in Madison, which is a thriving center of advanced manufacturing, and to people a few miles down the road in Janesville and Beloit, who live in as much Rust Belt wreckage as anyone in Cleveland or Akron.

The problem with talking about the Midwest is that it defies definition. Unlike tidy New England, it sprawls beyond natural boundaries. Unlike the South, with its Mason-Dixon Line and savage history, it lacks recognised historical and cultural frontiers.

The Midwestern Governors’ Association includes 12 states, from the Dakotas and the Great Plains in the west to Ohio in the east. I have my own definition, which is narrower than the Governors Association but more inclusive than either the Lincoln-based historians or Belt Magazine.

I’ve always defined the Midwest as that section of the country dominated by both heavy industry and intensive agriculture. Across this region, farms and factories intermingle and often depend on each other: the vast farm implement industries are as example. It’s a mistake to see the Midwest as either industrial or agricultural: in fact, it’s both.

Seen this way, the true Midwest stretches from western Pennsylvania and upstate New York through Ohio and Indiana to central Iowa, from Michigan through eastern Minnesota. This region also has a demographic and cultural unity. It even has a political unity: most of the nation’s swing states lie within it.

This definition would lop off the southern sections of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri, which are more Southern in their economies and cultures. It also stops short of the Great Plains, which are much less industrial, more agricultural, more sparsely populated and more conservative: a separate region, definitely worth studying but not to be confused with the denser and more industrial states to the east.

The Midwestern History Association will have earned its keep if it generates Midwestern studies in the region’s colleges and universities. At the moment, only one college in the region — Monmouth, a small liberal arts college in Monmouth, Illinois — teaches Midwestern history, economy, and demography. Each big state university has classes on its state, but nothing on the broader region that enfolds and often defines that state.

At last report, the Middle West Review had only 25 subscribers, mostly university libraries. Belt Magazine, by contrast, draws many more readers and makes more of an impact.

The American Prospect called Belt Magazine “the nation’s new literary darling." It has drawn first-class writers such as Edward McClelland and Daniel McGraw, who have branched out from Cleveland with articles on Buffalo and the Great Lakes.

Trubek says that, going forward, she wants to dive more into the region’s politics and economics with solid long-form journalism. She doesn’t seem at all interested in the kind of tourist kitsch and apple-pie recipes that, until now, have been the staples of the Midwest’s few regional magazines.

This post was originally published at The Midwesterner