At last, the Midwest is receiving recognition as the best portion of the nation. America’s regional characteristics are remarkably durable, a diversity resistant to dissolution by the mobility of restless Americans, or by cultural homogenization driven by mass media. This especially pleases Midwest chauvinists, who have had to contend with curdled despisers from — Et tu, Brute? — the Midwest.
Thanks to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 — the nation’s finest act of statecraft prior to the Constitution — the region that would become the Midwest’s 12 states, all west of the Alleghenies and north of the Ohio River (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas) never had slavery. Instead, these states had the crackling entrepreneurial energy that Alexis de Tocqueville, floating down the Ohio in Jacksonian America, saw to his right, in Ohio, but not, to his left, in slaveholding Kentucky.
In “The Good Country: A History of the American Midwest, 1800-1900,” Jon K. Lauck, editor of Middle West Review, recalls that historian Frederick Jackson Turner (born in Wisconsin in 1861) said, “It is in the Middle West that society has formed on lines least like Europe,” with fewer hierarchies and less deference: Kossuth County, Iowa, is named after a Hungarian revolutionary. Lauck, professor of history and political science at the University of South Dakota, notes that even Wisconsin-born (in 1867) Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Prairie Style” was a Midwestern declaration of architectural independence.
The 19th-century Midwest was, Lauck argues, “the most advanced democratic society” the world had yet seen. It was inhabited by people born in the young republic, mostly farmers cultivating land so bountiful that, the saying was, if you planted a crowbar, nails would sprout overnight. Aspiring adults inspired children mostly immune to “modernity’s corrosive cynicism, the kind that yields indifference and decay.”
Nineteenth—century Americans were formed by 122 million copies of McGuffey Readers (by William McGuffey, who served at three Ohio colleges). Such was the Midwest’s book culture, more Carnegie libraries (768 of the 1,689 total) were built in the Midwest than in any other region. Mark Twain, William Dean Howells and Theodore Dreiser, born in Missouri, Ohio and Indiana, respectively, were products of that culture, as was Willa Cather, who came of age in Nebraska. When James Whitcomb Riley died in 1916, 35,000 Hoosiers viewed his casket. By the Civil War, there were more than 100 Midwest colleges. Ohio had 20, Massachusetts only four.
Some Midwest writers have disdained the region that nourished them. Ernest Hemingway remembered his native Oak Park, Ill., for “broad lawns and narrow minds.” Ohioan Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” (1919) — he at first intended to title it “The Book of the Grotesque” — depicted small-town Midwesterners as lonely, stultified hypocrites. The neologism “Babbittry,” meaning banal materialism, came from the title of a 1922 novel by Minnesotan Sinclair Lewis: “His name was George F. Babbitt. He was forty-six years old now, in April, 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.”
These writers were part of “the revolt from the village,” so named in 1921 by a Columbia University professor, Carl Van Doren (from a farm near Hope, Ill.). Today, village attributes — including neighborliness, public schools that teach rather than preach, and vibrant civic cultures — look especially attractive when compared with urban dystopias, from Baltimore to San Francisco. And the myth of Midwestern blandness cannot account for Eugene Debs of Indiana and Malcolm X, from Omaha, Neb., and Lansing, Mich.
John Brown grew up near Akron, Ohio. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was based on her years in Cincinnati, on the banks of the river over whose ice floe Stowe’s fictional Eliza fled. In the Civil War, more than half the Union troops came from the Midwest’s one-quarter of the nation’s population, as did the North’s commander in chief, most of his Cabinet, and his two most important generals, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, both born in Ohio. When Minnesota’s population was 172,000, it sent 22,000 to join the Union Army. Almost 80 percent of the Union Army’s wheat, corn and oats came from Midwest soil.
As a new year unfolds a potentially ominous future, Lauck suggests remembering “the reassuring rhythm and rituals of civic affairs” in the Midwest when it was seen as (in the words of Minnesotan F. Scott Fitzgerald) “the warm center of the world.” Remembrance is necessary, Lauck writes, “lest we lose our bearings in the stream of time.”
George Will’s email address is email@example.com.