The Midwest’s Not-So-Hidden History

Clouds pass over a farm outside Dubuque, Iowa, July 26, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

The Heartland: An American History, by Kristin L. Hoganson (Penguin Press, 432 pp., $30)

‘Everything you know about x is wrong” has always been a hit with the reading public. Take Columbus. On Columbus Day, the righteous will complain that students aren’t taught the ugly truth about the Great Admiral. They will push this point, as they do every year, as if Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States hadn’t scuttled Columbus’s reputation decades ago. (As if, even before that, Ogden Nash hadn’t written the damning couplet “Once upon a time there was an Italian, / And some people thought he was a rapscallion!”) The ugly truth about Columbus is old news — but people find that story so satisfying that they pretend to forget it and beg, “Read it again, Daddy!”

The adversarial, myth-busting approach to United States history is, from a publishing perspective, a surefire winner. Usually. “Everything you know about the Midwest is wrong,” the implicit promise of Kristin L. Hoganson’s The Heartland: An American History, may leave the reader feeling that (a) he doesn’t know a damn thing about the Midwest, right or wrong, and (b) he’d rather just, as Iris DeMent sings, let the mystery be.

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But the reader relents. This reader spent his senior year of high school in Illinois (Professor Hoganson is employed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), having moved there from that enclave of sneering coastal elites, Connecticut. Much of what those who regard the Midwest as “flyover country” think they know about it is true. It is big, flat, carpeted wall to wall with corn, soybeans, wheat, and sorghum. What looks monotonous in HO scale from a low-flying plane remains monotonous viewed at full size from a moving car. Yet if Professor Hoganson is in possession — as Edgar Lee Masters was, a century ago — of a truth concealed within this landscape, it is our duty as patriots to consume it with relish.

The Heartland is, it happens, not so much about convincing the rest of the country that the Midwest is interesting as it is about convincing the Midwest that it doesn’t know itself. It recalls the religion scholar whose project is to tell modern-day Christians what they believe and then why the historical Jesus would have disapproved of it. It seems unlikely that much of what this book contains would scandalize or even necessarily surprise a midwesterner. But much of what it says is interesting, anyway — at intervals, in manageable doses, not unlike historical markers along the interstate.

The “heartland,” Hoganson tells us, is a myth — but what is the content of that myth? Who believed in it? Who does today? In the mid 20th century, Hoganson writes, the myth was of “a land of farmers of northern European descent, less the core of an expansive empire than a psychic fallout shelter. . . . From the start, the vision of security offered up by this heartland came wrapped in nostalgia, for it seemed just as imperiled by the urbanizing, multi-hued, industrial heartland as by distant threats.” This heartland was insular, peaceful, provincial, even isolationist. Picket-fenced-in, one might say.

The reality, Hoganson amply demonstrates, was always far more complex than that. Her narrative, which focuses on her adopted Champaign County, Ill., challenges the myth from two directions. It forces outsiders to examine their prejudices, whether rose-tinted or dismissive or downright contemptuous, about the Midwest. It forces midwesterners to examine their self-perceptions, on the one hand to accept blame for their past sins, on the other hand to accept praise for having been more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than they admit even to themselves.

An insistent subtext is that the heartland is in denial both about its vices, which it shares with the rest of America, and about its virtues, which it exercises, almost despite itself, in imitation of coastal urban centers. To anyone with even a weak grasp of United States history, the vices will be familiar. Hoganson meticulously chronicles the ways in which the indigenous Kickapoo were removed from the “heartland” and then erased from European settlers’ histories of their new home. Whether or not the particulars of this shameful process are generally known, most people are at least aware that it happened. Our benighted education system is hostile to most facts, but not to this kind.

The “good” facts, the facts that redound to the credit of the pioneers and the men and women who followed them, are less widely known. In this case, alas, it is because they are on the dry side.

It is important to know how cattle- and hog-raising transformed the Midwest, but only the most sedulous history student will thrill to Hoganson’s minutely detailed account of trends in these industries. That being said, the patient reader is rewarded from time to time with flashes of bizarre comedy: “Windsor Castle, a prize pig rhapsodized by the 1894 Year Book of the American Berkshire Association, . . . ‘was the only one of this sort of stock . . . which had any poetry in him.’” There are also instances of the kind of interpretative overreach one expects from a myth-busting book: “Since skin coloring had no intrinsic value in a dressed animal, Berkshire breeders’ efforts to whiten their animals can be attributed to their investments in white supremacy.” If you say so.

The revelation here — though it can’t be much of one to anyone involved in agriculture — is that far from being isolationist, the Midwest and its agribusiness were always global players. American pork, for instance, went everywhere, though its point of origin was often disguised from consumers. “An 1893 Parliamentary investigation,” Hoganson reveals, “turned up ample evidence that British dealers falsely marketed American bacon, lard, and hams as domestic.” This is, relatively speaking, gripping stuff.

The “settlers who forged the heartland,” Hoganson writes, “hankered after foreign markets,” and in creating agricultural products for export they did a great deal of importing, too. The midwestern landscape was transformed with plants and seeds from all over the world. Alien poultry, horses, and even bees reflected the Midwest’s international connections and cooperation. Midwesterners turned their new home into an economic powerhouse by altering it through massive engineering projects, too, turning wet prairie into productive farmland with ditch- and tile-drainage techniques.

The supposedly “insular” Midwest was connected to the rest of the world not only by its imports and exports but also by burgeoning systems of transportation and communication: rail travel, telegraph (and later telephone) lines, and radio. The international exchange of academic research and technological developments in such agriculturally critical fields as ornithology, entomology, and meteorology kept midwestern farmers on the cutting edge.

Hoganson achieves a surprisingly high yield from these less than fertile tangents. Her judicious quotation of primary sources can be a lot of fun: Birds, quoth the Illinois Farmer of October 1864, are “the naturally commissioned sentinels of our fruit trees, . . . a standing army — on picket duty — self-marshaled and trained to meet and overpower the invading army of the insect world.”

Yet an inescapable takeaway of The Heartland is that even the interesting things about the Midwest are, to put it bluntly, kind of dull. The quiet, isolated, insulated heartland may be a myth in absolute terms, but since when has anyone required that a myth be true in absolute terms? The heartland still answers to those descriptions by comparison with plenty of other places in the United States. It is not Hollywood or Honolulu or Flushing, Queens. There’s a reason its dark side looks like Spoon River Anthology and not The Barbary Coast or Gangs of New York. Is that a problem? If you’ve got a book to sell, maybe so. But if you’re a midwesterner, for cryin’ out loud, would you have it any other way?

This article appears as “The Mythical Midwest?” in the June 3, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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