The Midwestern Identity

From the August 1995 issue of Chronicles.

Ask a contemporary American to characterize “the Midwestern identity” and you will likely get, besides much puzzlement, one of two answers. Most would eventually reply “Big Ten Football,” but public radio listeners, always clued in on the big questions, would probably respond “Lake Wobegon,” the Minnesota town that time forgot, that the decades cannot improve. Since college football has become merely another big business, driven by television contracts and nationwide recruiting, only the second answer need concern us.

As the focus of “Prairie Home Companion”—the Garrison Keillor radio show that ran nationally with energy and wit between 1981 and 1987 and in diminished form again since 1993—Lake Wobegon represents a mythic world. Located in Mist County, the town is peopled mainly by German Catholics and Norwegian Lutherans, the Swedes having settled in the next county over. The town’s economic base might be called agrarian socialist. Farms run by Norwegian bachelors produce for Lake Wobegon’s modest export market, while village socialism guides other economic relations: you buy down at Hank’s Five and Dime, because Hank is your neighbor. Social life centers on The Sons of Knute Lodge, and the Knights of Columbus.

Keillor’s Lake Wobegon is neither myth nor fiction. It describes the only true Midwest; not the Midwest of 1995, to be sure, but the one that existed circa 1900. At that time, sympathetic observers saw a great agrarian civilization taking form in the Upper Mississippi Valley, in Illinois, north of Springfield, in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and the eastern thirds of Nebraska, and North and South Dakota. Liberty Hyde Bailey, Dean of Cornell’s College of Agriculture and America’s foremost botanist and horticulturist, reported that “a very distinct form of society is developing in the great farming regions of the Mississippi Valley . . . the exploiting and promoting occupancy of those lands is passing and a stable progressive development appears.” James “Tama Jim” Wilson of Iowa, United States Secretary of Agriculture for a record 16 years, said about that Midwest, “There was never a country so rich as this. There was never a country so prosperous. . . . There was never a people so contented as ours. . . . A new dignity has come to agriculture, along with its economic strength, and the farmer has a new horizon . . . which is more promising than the skyline of the city.”

Iowa was at the center of this informal rural empire, a rule symbolized by the men of that state who would serve as Secretary of Agriculture: “Tama Jim” Wilson, for three Presidents, from 1897 to 1913; Henry Wallace, Sr., from 1921-24; and Henry Wallace, Jr., from 1933 to 1940. According to the census of 1900, Iowa claimed the tenth largest population among the states (today, it ranks 30th) and 11 seats in a United States Congress of 386 (today it has five of 435). Also in 1900, 53 percent of all male workers in the state were farmers or farm workers; in Minnesota, 46 percent; in Wisconsin, 42 percent; in North Dakota, 67 percent. If one added in those laboring at tasks we now call agribusiness—the processing and transportation of grain and meat, the production of farm implements, and so on—roughly two-thirds of the region’s workers were agricultural. Despite agrarian crises in the 1870’s and 1890’s marked by falling commodity prices and credit squeezes, the region’s farm economy seemed solid again by 1900. Average farm size in Iowa was 151 acres in 1890, and 151.2 in 1900, suggesting no trend toward consolidation. Farm technology was stable, resting still on true horse power, and prices for farm commodities were relatively good. Small towns blossomed across the landscape, to serve this farm-based economy. Indeed, from 1900 to as late as 1980, Iowa would claim, in absolute terms, more incorporated towns of under a thousand people than any other state in the union.

The Upper Midwest was also a land of hyphenated Americans. In 1900, this region counted over 26 million persons, making it the most populated census region of the country. And over 44 percent of these Americans had either both or one parent who were foreign-born. In Illinois, the figure was 51 percent; in Wisconsin, 71 percent; in Minnesota, 75 percent. In the whole of the United States, one out of every four males of voting age was foreign-born; in the Upper Mississippi Valley, nearly half were.

The dominant hyphenated groups in 1900, by any measure, were the Germans and the Scandinavians. A survey of foreign language newspapers in the United States in 1892 counted: 727 German-language newspapers (including six dailies in Milwaukee alone), 112 Scandinavian newspapers, 40 French papers, and 28 Spanish papers. The Germans were the most assertive, as well as the most numerous. In 1900, the Census Bureau counted 6,255,000 persons with both parents having been born in Germany; another 1,585,000 persons with one German-born parent; for a total of 7,820,000, over 11 percent of the United States population. Heaviest concentrations of these German-Americans were in the rural regions of Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan. Half were Roman Catholic; a fair number of the rest belonged to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, sternly orthodox, emphasizing clerical authority, and committed to parochial schools using the German tongue. In 1899, the United States Congress recognized the political potency of this ethnic bloc and formally chartered the National German Alliance, dedicated to the promotion of German culture in America. More aggressive forms of “Germanism” were advanced by the Educational Alliance for the Preservation of German Culture in Foreign Lands.

With German prestige in science, music, art, and philosophy at a peak, German-American intellectuals showed, according to one writer, “a growing bumptiousness” after 1900. Pressure grew for the teaching of German in the public schools, while criticism of America’s low cultural and educational standards mounted in the German-American press.

The Swedish-Americans numbered 1,082,000 in 1900, heavily concentrated in Northern Illinois and Minnesota. Norwegian-Americans numbered 785,000, found primarily in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Ethnically based Lutheran churches continued to use the old languages, Swedish and Norwegian theaters flourished in Chicago and Minneapolis, and colleges using the Scandinavian tongues sprouted throughout the region. Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish publishing houses produced hundreds of titles each year. As late as 1910, the proportion of Swedish to English titles published by the leading Augustana Book Concern was five to one. Secular societies such as the Vasa Order and the Independent Order of Vikings, ethnically based savings and insurance associations and innumerable choral societies further bound together these distinctive communities. Swedish scholar Johan Persson predicted that the preservation of the Swedish language in America, and the artistic freedom found there, would soon give rise to a distinctive Swedish-American literature. As the century turned. the president of Illinois’ Augustana College predicted that Swedish-America would survive for another hundred years as a strong and distinct cultural entity.

At the time, the question arose in these communities: What did it mean to be an American? Or, as the old Americans sometimes put it: Did these Midwestern ethnic enclaves threaten American unity?

An argument, at least, could be made that German separatist sentiments held some strength. Many old-stock Americans certainly suspected that a large number of their German-American neighbors would have been pleased to see the Midwest relabeled “The Independent Republic of Germania.” In his history of the German-Americans, Richard O’Connor states that the Germans “were the most dangerously volatile addition to the ethnic mixture which makes up the American.” German was, after all, the “universal Latin of European radicalism,” and German names were prominent on the lists of socialist and anarchist agitators in America.

Back in the old country, German strategists also saw the overseas German population as a geopolitical asset. In his widely publicized 1911 book, Germany and the Next War, Prussian General von Bernhardi predicted that in the event of war with Great Britain, the United States could be expected to invade and occupy Canada, reasoning: “The German-Americans have formed a political alliance with the Irish and, thus united, constitute a power in the state with which the American government must reckon.”

Fewer in number, Swedish-Americans rarely dreamed of secession. However, cultural nationalism was strong among the religious and educational elites, and the maintenance of a separate culture stood as their goal.

But even this limited dream, I assert, was fated to an early demise. In 1904, Rudolf Kjellen, professor of geopolitics at Sweden’s Uppsala University, visited Swedish-America. Expected to deliver a message of strong Swedish nationalism, for which he was famous, Kjellen instead told the leadership of Swedish-America, assembled at Augustana College, that their community would and must die. The character of a people, he said, was conditioned by the land and climate in which they dwelled. The Swedes had strong and varied ties to the Baltic region. But if every Swede were somehow transported to the shores of the Mississippi, a new Sweden would not be built there. “The landscape has more power than memories,” Kjellen asserted, and in the new physical environment, the folk character would change. Swedish-America, he continued, was built not on a mountain, but on a swiftly moving stream. He declared to his audience: “Your past is at one with ours; your present and future arc and shall be different.” America would win out, because the power of assimilation between a landscape and a people would overcome all hindrances. The Swedish element, he said, must lose itself within the new nation, just as distinctive German and English elements must also disappear.

Indeed, in retrospect, we can see that German-America and Swedish-America were already dissolving by 1900, 17 years before war-induced hysteria brought direct suppression. The last large influx of German immigrants came in 1891-92, when 244,000 arrived. Those very years also proved to be the peak period for the German-language press. By 1904, with few new immigrant boats coming from Bremen, nearly one-quarter of the German-language periodicals had disappeared. Not only had numbers changed; but so had content. In 1890, news of the old country predominated. By 1905, local and regional stories covered the front pages. While German-Americans were firmly united in opposition to the Prohibition movement, they divided on virtually all other political issues. The Democratic, Republican, Progressive, and Socialist parties all claimed significant numbers of German-American adherents.

As early as 1900, the Swedish language was in decline in the colleges, the requirement of “an ability to read and write Swedish” disappearing from the Augustana College catalog that year. Without a continuing influx of new immigrants, the assimilation process, driven largely by interaction with the new landscape and by the integrative force of the economy, went into high gear.

Symbolic of this, several German-American groups reversed their position on immigration in the 1890’s, joining the anti-immigration American Protective Association. Scandinavian groups soon followed suit. Indeed, so many Swedish-Americans in Minneapolis joined the A.P.A. in 1894 that the A.P.A. journal in that town merged with the leading Swedish-language newspaper. New interests and new worries were superseding immigrant ties to the old countries.

By 1914, however, a “Midwest identity” of sorts was taking form, much as Kjellen had seen, one defined by small towns, agricultural pursuits, the village socialism of the early cooperatives, and a distrust of centralizing government and foreign adventuring. Strong elements from the German and Scandinavian culture and characters could be found in this mix, as could influences from the English-speaking America that produced agrarians like “Tama Jim” Wilson. From 1900 to 1914, this Midwest began to find artistic expression as well, in sculptors such as Loredo Taft; architects such as Wright and Saarinen; artists such as Wood, Sandzen, and Benton; poets such as Lindsay, Sandburg, and Masters; and novelists such as Ole Rolvaag.

But this distinctive regional “America” lasted barely four decades, dying as a coherent entity sometime in the early 1950’s. Space does not allow me a detailed review of this demise, but I would offer a few thoughts. Certainly, the technological revolution stimulated by the internal combustion engine played a role, after 1920, in destabilizing the labor-intensive agrarian economy on which this unique “Middle West” partially depended. Another material factor pushing for change was the relatively low return of agricultural product to capital, which diverted ever more wealth into industrial investment, stimulating in turn the vast expansion of cities such as Chicago and Detroit, pressing ever deeper into the countryside. But inept government agricultural policy played a more crucial role. Wage, price, and production controls imposed during wartime in 1917-19, the rapid return to a disoriented market in the 1920’s, the Agricultural Adjustment Act and its clones in the 1930’s, and the second forced march of agriculture into emergency or wartime socialism in the 1941-45 period left the nascent Agrarian Republic in ruins.

By the 1950’s, the region was losing many of its distinguishing qualities, becoming part of the universalized New America being crafted around the burgeoning suburbs, a province of the Democratic Empire. Today, the Midwest, as such, exists in the scattered and abused villages and heavily mortgaged family farms of a backcountry, depopulated and poor. And it exists, in the legend of Lake Wobegon, off in distant Mist County. 

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