The Elbert Files: Valuing our midwest history
Friday, March 28, 2014 7:00 AM
“The Lost Region,” a new book from the University of Iowa Press, traces the importance of Midwestern history and its unfortunate decline after World War II.
The book by Jon K. Lauck is subtitled “Toward a Revival of Midwestern History.”
A century ago, Lauck wrote, there was great interest in the history of the 12-state region known as the Middle West because that history helped explain how our unique brand of democracy made us different from other nations.
Wisconsin-born Frederick Jackson Turner created an academic focus on the Midwest, Lauck explained, with his 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History. In it, Turner argued that the West, rather than the East, was where the characteristics most commonly associated with American individualism were formed.
Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” struck a cord and lured a generation of men off their families’ farms to become what Lauck calls “prairie historians.”
During the opening decades of the 20th century, the prairie historians dug through archives, poking and prodding conventional wisdom of historians in the East and South.
The new prairie historians helped explain “the origins of the American Revolution, the political and social foundations of the American republic, the outcome of the Civil War, and the emergence of the United States as a world power,” Lauck wrote.
Clarence Alvord at the University of Illinois argued in 1918 that the roots of the American Revolution predated the Stamp Act of 1765 and subsequent events in the coastal colonies.
Alvord said the stage for revolution was set as far back as 1754, when 21-year-old George Washington ignited a dispute with the French over control of the colonial backcountry west of the Appalachian Mountains.
After the Revolutionary War, the influx of settlers and new immigrants into the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys resulted in the creation of new states where land ownership was more widely distributed and the right to vote more widely held than had been the case in the original 13 states in the East and South.
Prairie historians, Lauck wrote, “believe the Midwest made Union victory possible” in the Civil War. “The North’s most successful generals – Grant, Sherman and Sheridan – were from the Midwest,” he wrote. “The Midwest enhanced the Union’s military and economic power by 50 percent, which was probably a decisive contribution.”
The Midwest’s economic and agrarian strength were also key factors in the 20th century’s world wars, Lauck said. But after World War II, things changed. As the original prairie historians were dying off, their successors began to see Midwestern studies as too parochial. They turned to broader subjects, including studies of the labor movement, civil rights and women’s rights.
Gradually, the number of historic journals focused on the Midwest shrank until today, when the Annals of Iowa, published by the State Historical Society of Iowa, is one of only a handful of journals that continues to have a Midwestern focus. Similarly the University of Iowa Press, which published “The Lost Region,” is notable for its continued interest in Midwestern history. That’s due in large part to Bill Friedricks, who directs the Iowa History Center at Simpson College and is editor of the Iowa and Midwest Experience book series at the U of I Press.
Lauck argues that Midwestern studies are still essential to broader understandings of the world, and the timing of his book is good in that it coincides with a growing fondness for nostalgia among us baby boomers as we reach retirement.
In Iowa alone, there is no shortage of topics in need of historic analysis. Possibilities include the long-range impact of the Carter administration’s 1980 embargo of grain sales to the Soviet Union, the Iowa caucuses, and the cultural and economic impact that new generations of Hispanic and Asian immigrants are having throughout the Midwest.
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