Borders of the Midwest

Patrick Cox, H-NET President-Elect and Editor's picture

Below is an editorial from the Omaha World-Herald, published on Dec. 1, 2015 on their website Omaha.com. The piece makes a nice start for H-Midwest as it raises questions about what exactly the Midwest is, a question the editors of H-Midwest have been grappling with since we began this project. The piece suggests Nebraska as a nexus point of sorts between the Great Plains, the Midwest, and the West.

Is Nebraska a porous border? Can we see Nebraska and other states as both in the Midwest and not? Other regional borderlands exist. Is Oklahoma Midwestern, or is it the South? Ohio has ties to the Midwest, East, and South. What about Missouri? Or Southern Illinois? Of the 12 states the U.S. Census Bureau includes in the Midwestern States, only three—Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin—do not border on other Bureau-defined regions. (Yet there’s a movement in Minnesota to “secede” from the Midwest and call itself “the North.”)

All these questions point to difficulties in defining the Midwest (or any region) by the states that it consists of. But how then? Any other method—culture, industry, socio-economics--are all more fluid and, as Jon Lauck says in the editorial, “fuzzy.” Can we be comfortable with fuzziness around the edges, but still be certain there is something solid at the center? Is it possible a boundary could be so “fuzzy” that we actually can’t be certain one even exists at all?

We’re also happy to see two H-Midwest Advisory Board members quoted in the piece.

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“World-Herald editorial: Our Place on the Map

Nebraska is a fascinating study in regional connections. Ranging from corn and soybean country in the east to short-grass rangeland in the west, Nebraska has ties to three major U.S. regions: the Midwest, the Great Plains and the American West.

Nebraska — whose characteristics are explored in a recent encyclopedia of the Great Plains and in one about the Midwest — “always comes up in discussions of Midwest regionality, ” says Andrew Cayton, a historian with Miami University in Ohio.

“Scholars usually split the state up culturally around the 100th meridian of longitude,” where the state begins to take on the rugged, semi-arid character of the West, Cayton told The World-Herald when we looked at this topic back in 2010.

As for the boundaries of the Midwest, Deborah Miller, with the Minnesota Historical Society, has written: “The American Midwest means different things to different people. ... From Ohio, the Missouri River looks like a distant boundary in a different kind of place.”

So which states or parts of states — and which cultural traits — can be said to make up the Midwest or Great Plains?

That’s what a new book project, titled “In Search of the Interior Borderlands,” will explore.

Jon Lauck, a University of South Dakota scholar and president of the Midwestern History Association, is overseeing the project. There may not be hard-and-fast conclusions to reach, he told The World-Herald, but “that shouldn’t prevent us from exploring a (regional) boundary that we all know is there, however fuzzy it seems at times.”

The response from scholars to the book project has been positive, Lauck says. “Regions have not been a fashionable academic topic for quite some time, so we think it’s important to open up this dimension of American history for greater discussion and research.”

Lauck notes that “the identity of Midwesterners was once stronger, especially during the early 20th century, just after the moniker ‘Middle West’ or ‘Midwest’ began to gain some currency.” A book on that topic is in the works, Lauck says, and it has a Nebraska connection. Titled “The Midwestern Moment: The Forgotten World of Early-Twentieth Century Midwestern Regionalism,” the book will be published in 2018 by Nebraska-based Hastings College Press.

The Midwestern History Association recently marked its first anniversary and has presented its first book and scholarly article awards. The organization has amassed a significant following on Twitter and Facebook, and many scholars have stepped forward to aid the association’s work. “There seems to be a feeling that we should have been doing this all along,” Lauck says, “and people are surprised when they stop and think that there hasn’t been any organized study of the Midwest for over a half-century.”

“People who are rooted take care of a place better and govern it more wisely and tend to be happier,” Lauck says.

If these efforts by scholars help “people to understand their regions and home places a bit better,” he says, “we’ll have accomplished something to the good.”

A worthy cause, indeed.