A century ago, the American Midwest was in the ascendant, widely acknowledged as the nation’s vital Heartland, a place characterized by a morally strong and independent populace, a relatively egalitarian distribution of wealth in land (the classic 160 acre family farm), and true democratic values. The print media of the day celebrated its distinctive farm and village culture, found most purely in the state of Iowa. Young historians, following the lead of Frederick Jackson Turner and his “frontier thesis,” began to explore and record the region’s origins and efflorescence, leading to the founding of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association in 1907.
A year later Harvard University philosopher Josiah Royce came to lecture in Iowa City. He contrasted the “organic life” and “independence” of the Midwest and other American regions to the “monotonously uniform triviality of mind” and the “dead level of harassed mediocrity” found in a mass national culture. As historian Bernard DeVoto reported, the common view at the time was that the “Mississippi Valley must eventually be the dominant culture of the United States.”
Following World War I, however, a band of intellectuals and literary critics on the East Coast launched a sustained attack on this culture. They cast it instead, in historian Jon Lauck’s words, “as a repressive and sterile backwater filled with small-town snoops, redneck farmers, and zealous theocrats.” They identified a “revolt from the village,” where poets and novelists actually reared in the Midwest—Edgar Lee Masters, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and F. Scott Fitzgerald—attacked it mercilessly. This assault on the Midwest eventually extended to the field of history, where a regional focus was dismissed as “reactionary,” “retrograde.”
Lauck’s From Warm Center to Ragged Edge analyzes the social and intellectual forces “that wilted the midwestern identity” by the 1960’s. His title actually comes from Fitzgerald: more specifically, from the mind of his most famous character, Nick Carraway (The Great Gatsby), who uses both phrases in different places to describe the location of his Minnesota hometown within the universe. Lauck succeeds brilliantly in debunking the original debunkers. He is particularly astute in dismantling the myth of the “revolt from the village” and in revealing the actual ideological agenda behind this assault on Midwestern life.
Lauck traces the origins of the “revolt” thesis to Van Wyck Brooks’s The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920), which described a writer repressed by the “puritanism” of “the dry, old, barren, horizonless Middle West, . . . the barrenest spot in all Christendom, surely, for the seed of genius to fall in.” A year later Columbia University English professor Carl Van Doren published his “revolt” essay in the increasingly leftist magazine The Nation. The writers involved, he said, described the truth about the “slack and shabby” Midwestern village, full of “grotesque forms,” “filth,” “rot,” “complacency,” “stupidity,” and a “pitiless decorum” that actually covered up an “abundant feast of scandal.” H.L. Mencken joined in, denouncing “Middle Western Kultur” and “the loneliness and hopelessness of the buried life of small towns.” This interpretation quickly passed into the standard histories of the time, such as Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s (1931) and Henry Steele Commager’s intellectual history of the United States—a fine example of the power of New York’s intellectual echo chamber.
The actual agenda here, Lauck shows, was a broad attack on “the persisting customs and values of nineteenth-century Victorian culture” and the moral “strictures of Christianity.” The Midwest became a “convenient whipping boy” for rejecting the virtues of diligence, thrift, self-denial, persistence, chastity, and fidelity. The intellectual currents feeding this assault ranged from Freud’s focus on “repressed emotions” and the “primitivism” of the new anthropology practiced by Franz Boas to communists using art as a class weapon to destroy “the cult of the village.” The favored alternative model was the alienated writer, residing in Greenwich Village or Paris.
In truth, the so-called village rebels from the Midwest denied any such intent—in their own words, they didn’t exist! Masters expressed contempt for Van Doren and simply declared, “I didn’t revolt against my village.” Indeed, this strong Jeffersonian disliked cities (“full of demagogues, . . . egotists, and snobs”) and praised his home county in Southern Illinois for holding “a magical appeal to me quite beyond my power to describe.” Anderson insisted that “there wasn’t anything to this revolting. I loved Clyde [his Ohio hometown],” a “fair and sweet place” he contrasted to the “nightmare of disorder, ugliness, and noise” found in cities. While Lewis “understood that scandal sold” and allowed critics to think that he had had an unhappy childhood in Sauk Center, Minnesota, he actually held that “It was a good time, a good place, and a good preparation for life.” Books such as Main Street and Babbitt, he said, were intended as “constructive criticism”: They were to show “a love of Main Street . . . a belief in Main Street’s inherent power.” He, too, found the revolt thesis to be “unsound.” Finally, Lauck persuasively argues that virtually all of the references to the Midwest found in Fitzgerald’s work are positive, as in his description of St. Paul as a “city of the pastoral ideal not altered to an urban ash heap,” as found in the East.
Lauck devotes a chapter to “The Failed Revolt Against the Revolt.” He provides splendid descriptions of Midwestern writers during the 1920’s and 30’s who found continued richness in their region. Among these was Ruth Suckow, who rejected—in her words—the fashionable “Brontë-esque” stereotype “of a wild soul struggling against narrow bonds among the bleak midwestern moors.” In best-selling books such as Country People and The Folks, she featured the “real, acting democracy” found in small towns, where churches served as “the centers of this democratic life and spirit, as they were of the whole social life of the community.” Particularly valuable is the attention Lauck gives to August Derleth, who crafted a publishing empire in and about his home in Sauk City, writing books such as Village Year that—in Masters’ telling—“will make America love Wisconsin.”
Why did this Midwestern regionalism ultimately fail? Lauck properly notes material changes, such as the invention of air conditioning, which made living in both the Old South and the Southwest more attractive; some Midwesterners began to move. Television, for its part, was “a weapon which irrevocably destroys all regional boundaries.” More important, though, were political and intellectual developments. While the New Deal made some nods toward regionalism (such as the Subsistence Homestead project), its dominant thrust was massive centralization. Figures such as Rex Tugwell denounced the Midwest’s “cult of feeble government” and worked to eliminate the small farmers who stood in the way of the waxing administrative state. Academic Marxism, also on the rise, was deeply critical of regionalism and rural and small-town cultures. Finally, the American entry into World War II—opposed by the Midwestern-based America First Committee—“sounded the death knell for the traditional village-and-countryside kind of life.”
Lauck concludes his study with a chapter on the parallel, if somewhat delayed, decline of the discipline of Midwestern history. A bevy of historians, nearly all hailing from farms or small towns, had produced a series of studies focused on the settlement of the Midwest, farming, agrarian Populism, and the daily life of “folks” inhabiting the prairie. Representative were John Barnhart’s Valley of Democracy and R. Carlyle Buley’s The Old Northwest, both of which won Pulitzers. These were the first American historians to stress social and economic subjects, and they deemed religion a “universally pervasive force” in the Midwest.
Trouble began with the advent of World War II. It fueled contempt for Midwestern isolationism, directed especially toward the antiwar views of the Iowa-born Carl Becker and Charles Beard. The Cold War delivered a double blow. The Midwest was simultaneously condemned for its America First heritage and for the extreme anticommunism of Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy: views that confirmed its new image as a place of “ignorant Biblical literalists, rednecks, and crypto anti-Semites.” The Cold War smothered regionalist history in other ways. To battle communism, American history had to be rewritten, with a focus on “union and cooperation,” not national divisions. This campaign also required new attention to America’s historical ties to Europe, to be achieved through mandatory courses in Western Civilization. (Lauck might have noted here the passage of the National Defense Education Act, the first massive intrusion by the federal government into higher education, which among other provisions gave fairly generous fellowships to graduate students wanting to teach “Western Civ.” I know this, because I received one.)
Meanwhile, the profession as a whole turned leftward. The “new” social history was Marxist in inspiration. The “new” intellectual historians had no interest in the daily lives of “folks.” Leading figures such as Richard Hofstadter dismissed the “myths of agrarian life” and concluded that “regionalism almost always succumbs to reactionary impulses.” These new historians threw Turner and his “frontier thesis” onto “the ash heap of dead myths.” Their campaign culminated in the early 1960’s, when academic insurgents won control of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, renaming it the Organization of American Historians; The Mississippi Valley Historical Review became The Journal of American History.
Importantly, Jon Lauck has spearheaded a revival of Midwestern regionalism. Following the appearance of his 2013 book The Lost Region, young scholars have flocked to the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature and the new Midwestern History Association. A fresh journal with the needed funding, Middle West Review, has also appeared, along with the launching of new book series on the Midwestern experience by the University of Iowa Press, the Hastings College Press, and the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. These are signs, in Lauck’s hopeful words, of “a bit more fire in the regionalist belly.” These developments are also signs of a broader hope and meaning. As an editor at the University of Minnesota Press commented some decades ago, the foes of regionalism “forget that trying to build a strong nation . . . out of weak local communities is like adding a column of zeros; the result will be zero.”
[From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920-1965, by Jon K. Lauck (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press) 266 pp., $27.50]