Finding a Place for the Midwest in the American Historical Profession

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Finding a Place for the Midwest in the American Historical Profession

By Jon Lauck

President, Midwestern History Association

For H-Midwest 

 

The spring history conference season is fast approaching and it brings to mind a commentary published last November as the fall conference season was in full swing.  Just as the Western History Association and the Southern Historical Association annual meetings were starting, Adam Arenson of Manhattan College, who recently published a wonderful book about St. Louis (The Great Heart of the Republic (Harvard University Press)), wondered about how our intellectual life is divided regionally.1  Writing for the always-impressive and thought-provoking U.S. Intellectual History Blog, Arenson noted, in particular, the creation of the Midwestern History Association in 2014 and wondered how the MHA will influence how historians do their work and, more generally, how historians could or should handle the role of regional identities in the nation’s past. 

The MHA has been considering these questions for a couple of years and they are indeed worth thinking about and we welcome Arenson’s questions and hope they lead to more discussions.  For the MHA, its essential purpose since its founding has been to create a space for doing the work of studying the history of the American Midwest, a region which had fallen through the scholarly cracks, as it were, over the past half-century.  From a very promising start in the early twentieth-century, when the old Mississippi Valley Historical Association led a broad-based effort to study the Midwest, the organized effort to study the Midwest dwindled down to only the most minimal signs of life.  Several institutional reckonings and adjustments and developments explain this sorry state.

The most devastating blow to Midwestern history came in the early 1960s with the decision to end the old Midwestern-focused Mississippi Valley Historical Association and Mississippi Valley Historical Review and turn them into national organs, i.e. the Organization of American Historians and the Journal of American History.  The end of the MVHA was a major blow to Midwestern history because it had “provided an institutional structure in which members could pursue a coherent research program” grounded in a region in contrast to the contemporary “indifference to place.”2 

Midwestern history also lost a large sub-group of historians who had once been active in the MVHA to the emerging American West.  From the time of the early work of Frederick Jackson Turner in the late nineteenth-century, most historical research on topics in the trans-Allegheny West was considered “Western history” even though most of this work was concentrated on the Midwest and conducted at the ascendant and increasingly influential Midwestern universities.  But by the time of World War II, the far West was no longer the sparsely-populated territory of an earlier era in which the universities tended to be weak.3  As the work on Midwestern history began to decline about the time of World War II and state universities and other schools in the far West became much stronger and began to focus on their region, the history of the West began to be associated with the trans-Missouri West and the Midwest began to fade from the once broad formula of “Western history.”4 

When the Western History Association was formed in 1961 it was premised on giving attention to the farther West and designed to “fill a void” in the historical profession.  It drew support from the expanding universities of the trans-Missouri West and drew in some older historians who once focused on the Midwest as the field of Midwestern history declined.5  The California boom of the postwar era was as enticing to historians as to Americans at large and given added force by the institutional influence of the Huntington Library and emerging Western universities.  During the postwar era, for example, Berkeley became a major force in American intellectual circles in part due to its vast graduate program, which made it the “largest in the world.”6  The rapid ascendance of California and the broader Santa Fe-ification of intellectual life – or the increasing trendiness of Western space and natural beauty and deserts and Indian culture which began during the 1920s – drew further energy to the West.  The rise of the Western History Association and the emergence of far Western research centers and universities and the drift of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association away from its regional roots increasingly left the history of the Midwest without a scholarly home. 

For the sake of Midwestern history, it might have been wise for its proponents to either preserve the MVHA as it was and simultaneously promote the creation of a separate nationally-oriented organization of American historians or, after the MVHA changed its mission, to create a new organization focused on the Midwest (Ray Allen Billington reported that a “large group of traditionalists in the upper Mississippi Valley” were “plotting to form their own society” if the MVHA was changed), but this was not done.7

The news kept getting worse for anyone interested in the organized study of Midwestern history, a course of events and a piece of intellectual history that the MHA has been attempting to explore in recent months.  In addition to discussing the matter at several recent history conferences on Midwest-focused panels, the MHA’s online journal Studies in Midwestern History has been attempting to map this decline.  Studies recently published, for example, an article by Miami University (of Ohio) Professor David Fahey about the demise of the once-lively journal The Old Northwest: A Journal of Regional Life and Letters, which was published at Miami University and focused on the history and literature of the Midwest.8  Studies followed this by publishing an account of the demise of the Chicago-based journal Mid-America: An Historical Review written by Loyola University of Chicago history professor Theodore Karamanski.9  In coming months, Studies is scheduled to publish an account of the demise of the Midwest Review, which was published at Wayne State College in Nebraska, and perhaps Upper Midwest History, which was published at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.  The erosion of these key institutional components for the study of Midwestern history help explain why the Midwest became “the lost region” in terms of historical study.10

The dismal situation for Midwestern history helps explain the enthusiasm among some Midwesterners upon hearing the news of the formation of the Midwestern History Working Group in 2013 and ultimately the creation of the Midwestern History Association in 2014.  This corresponded with the launch of new historically-oriented journals such as Middle West Review and Studies and also new literary journals such as Midwest Gothic, The New Territory, and Old Northwest Review and the new Belt Magazine, which is focused on the industrial Midwest, in addition to its book publishing arm, Rust Belt Chic Press, which has published The Detroit Anthology (2014) and Car Bombs to Cookie Tables: The Youngstown Anthology (2015) and other similar books.  The effort to study the Midwest is also bolstered by regional conferences, which have also been the focus of pieces in Studies of late.11  These conferences are not focused solely on the history of the region, however, and one, the Mid-America Conference on History, now faces an uncertain future, but they offer an important forum to historians working in the Midwest.12  The MHA has also cemented alliances with the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association and also works closely with the Western Historical Association, so prospects for a serious revival of Midwestern history are good.  

The critical underlying question which faces all efforts to study the various regions of the country is how much distinctiveness there is between American regions.  I think there’s a good deal.13  But others may disagree, or at least prefer to focus on other forms of human identity besides rootedness in region or place.  However one might think about it now, however, surely most historians would agree that in past the degrees of difference between American regions was high.  And since historians study the past, that’s something we must reckon with, using whatever institutional supports we happen to have.  

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1 Adam Arenson, “U.S. History’s Regional Associations—Shaped By Geography or Driving Questions? And Does It Matter?” U.S. Intellectual History Blog, November 11, 2015. 

2 Ian Tyrrell, “Public at the Creation: Place, Memory, and Historical Practice in the Mississippi Valley Historical Association,” Journal of American History vol. 94, no. 1 (June 2007), 21 (“structure” quote is Tyrrell; “indifference” quote is from David Glassberg). 

3 Earl Pomeroy, The American Far West in the Twentieth Century (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2008), 2 (noting that into the last half of the nineteenth century states such as Iowa and Wisconsin had greater populations by themselves than the entirety of the sixteen states of the American West). 

4 Jo Tice Bloom, “Cumberland Gap versus South Pass: The East or West in Frontier History,” Western Historical Quarterly vol. 3, no. 2 (April 1972), 156-58.

5 See conference program for 1961 meeting of The Conference on the History of Western America in Santa Fe, in FF 88, Box 34, James Olson Papers, Nebraska State Historical Society (void).  When the MVHA was first formed, the Midwest was then largely considered part of “the West.”  James R. Shortridge, “The Emergence of ‘Middle West’ as an American Regional Label,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers vol. 74, no. 2 (1984), 212.  The emergence of a clear differentiation between the Midwest and West paved the way for the Western History Association to emerge later.  

6 After the war, Berkeley had 4,000 graduate students which, according to the recently-arrived Midwesterner John D. Hicks, made Berkeley’s graduate program the “largest in the world.”  Hicks to Merle Curti, April 16, 1947, FF 17, Box 19, Curti Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.  Berkeley's history department also grew dramatically in the postwar years.  Vernon Carstensen to Merle Curti, August 5, 1958, FF 18, Box 8, Curti Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society. 

7 Ray Allen Billington, “From Association to Organization: The OAH in the Bad Old Days,” Journal of American History vol. 65, no. 1 (June 1978), 80.  

8 David M. Fahey, “The Rise and Fall of a Midwestern Studies Journal: The Old Northwest, 1975-1992,” Studies in Midwestern History vol. 1 no. 9, December 2015), 84-88. 

9 Theodore J. Karamanski, “A Catholic History of the Heartland: The Rise and Fall of Mid-America: A Historical Review,” Studies in Midwestern History vol. 2 no. 1 (January 2016), 1-12. 

10 Jon K. Lauck, The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History (Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 2013). 

11 Oliver B. Pollak with Harl A. Dalstrom, “Omaha's Missouri Valley History Conference, 1958-2009: An Intellectual History,” Studies in Midwestern History vol. 2, no. 2 (January 2016), 13-32; William Lass, “Historical Sketches of the Northern Great Plains History Conference, 1966-2015,” Studies in Midwestern History vol. 1, no. 8 (October 2015), 74-83. 

12 James N. Giglio, “A History of the Mid-America Conference on History,” Studies in Midwestern History vol. 1, no. 10 (December 2015), 89-101. 

13 Jon K. Lauck, “Finding the Rural West,” in David D. Danbom (ed), Bridging the Distance: Common Issues of the Rural West (Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 2015), 7-34 (available for free download on the website of the University of Utah Press). 

This is an interesting column and I am glad to see the formation of the Midwestern History Association. What it fails to mention are the vibrant activities that are being done within states in the Midwest and the high level of activity - including at the scholarly level - among our state historical societies and other similar organizations. For example, the Historical Society of Michigan (HSM) is the largest sponsor and distributor of the Michigan Historical Review (MHR) which, for years, has included content inclusive of the Great Lakes region as a whole. Although this does not represent the entire Midwest, it is a significant portion of it. While some in our organization have questioned why my institution continues to support the MHR, my Board of Trustees and I feel strongly that we need to encourage learning at all levels - from our child focused Michigan History for Kids and our popular magazine Michigan History to the scholarly focused MHR.

HSM operates three conferences every year that gather learners together. While these are more popular in focus to engage a educated lay audience, we have many academics that share their research at our conferences while crafting their presentation in an audience friendly manner. The Great Lakes History Conference, held each year by Grand Valley State University, is an example of quality content that has a scholarly focus - and there are many others I am sure throughout the Midwest.

I've been Director of Michigan's state historical society for fifteen years and I don't believe I've seen significant connections or approaches between organizations that are Midwestern-focused and the vibrant state historical societies and organisations within those boundaries. Maybe it is time to make more connections to the benefit of both.

Thank you for this informative and enlightening post. I'd like to point out that here at the Ohio State University Press, we are reviving our regional publishing program in an attempt to provide a new venue for the dissemination of both scholarly and popular works, primarily on Ohio and the Midwest region. The program will carry its own imprint, Trillium books, and will launch this fall with the publication of four titles. We'll be publishing a history of the Ohio State University during the 1960s, written by Bill Shkurti; a 200 year history of the city of Columbus, focusing on land and water use policies and their economic and environmental impact on the area, written by Mansel Blackford; the autobiography of Ohio's first black congressman, Louis Stokes; and a photography book focusing on the Columbus-based Lustron Corporation's pre-fab homes, and the current owners of the surviving Lustron houses. In the spring we'll be publishing a history of the iron industry in Youngstown during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and have several other projects currently in development.

University presses in the midwest have done yeoman's work in attempting to record and disseminate the history of the states we serve, and I'm proud to be joining my colleagues at Kent State, Akron, and Ohio University in providing opportunities for scholars to reach both their professional colleagues, and the general public. We strongly believe that place does indeed shape history, and we're dedicated to documenting, preserving, and disseminating our rich and diverse regional history.

Tony Sanfilippo
Director of the Ohio State University Press

Thanks to Jon for noting my article, and using it to frame his post.

But I am still curious about answers to what I see as the underlying questions I raise, and that any regional study must address: Where is the Midwest? When does it emerge as a meaningful region, and why? How have Midwestern borders changed over time? And what driving question (or questions) have shaped Midwestern history, and can or should Midwestern history be about process or place or both?

My own offhand answers are that the Midwest as a region emerges quite late, a splitting off from the Great West that Bill Cronon describes and nineteenth century Americans would have recognized. Only when there is talk of a Far West, Mountain West, and First West in the Appalachians is there a Midwest, I bet--and it has a somewhat uneasy relationship with regional labels of Great Plains and Great Lakes, among others.

As Jon noted on Twitter, surveys find more parts of Missouri as agreed upon in the Midwest than Minnesota; I am curious if this holds up over time, and what other questions of Midwestern boundaries emerge.

Have those on this list found a current or past driving question that shaped Midwestern studies as a field, and might have been exported as a methodology? In terms of driving questions, I wrote of the West and incorporation, South and race and labor; Northeast and markets and trade.

Is/was Midwestern history about questions of agriculture, or life as shaped by the land-survey sections, or white ethnicity and assimilation? My sense is the strongest argument for the subfield has to come from a firm geography or a clearly influential driving question, or both; I haven't read enough of the MVHR or the current scholarship Jon cites to know if the answer is there.

I would caution us with the sense that not every named geographic subsection is a true region; a scholar of the Sun Belt told me that, despite working on an edited volume on the "region," it turned out not to be a very meaningfully unified geographic area once they looked into it. Would those on this list see Rust Belt as a meaningful region either?

I know Jon is part of panels at the Mid-America American Studies Association on March 5; perhaps they can find some answers there.... or on this list?

Sincerely,

Adam Arenson
Associate Professor of History and Director of the Urban Studies Program

For the award-winning The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War (Harvard, 2011/paperback Missouri, 2015), my co-edited volumes Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States (California, 2015) and Frontier Cities: Encounters at the Crossroads of Empire (Penn, 2013), and current projects, see: http://adamarenson.com and http://manhattan.edu/faculty/adamarenson