Midwestern History Association Confers Annual Awards at Conference in Grand Rapids

Maria Howe's picture

For Immediate Release

The Midwestern History Association is pleased to announce the winners of its 2017 prizes for new scholarship on the Midwest and lifetime achievement in the field.  The awards, detailed below, were presented on June 7 at the society’s annual meeting, which was held at the Hauenstein Center at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Dorothy Schwieder Prize for Best Article in Midwestern History:

Omar Valerio-Jimenez, “Racializing Mexican Immigrants in Iowa’s Early Mexican Communities,” Annals of Iowa 74 (Winter 2016). 

Committee member Jeff Bremer had this to say about the article:

"I absolutely love the article by Valerio-Jimenez--it has thorough research, is gracefully written and focuses on a subject almost utterly ignored in Iowa history.  It is a substantial contribution to the history of Iowa--not just focusing on one town or county, but the whole state.  The article is placed in good historical context and does an excellent job of detailing the history of a group that is virtually absent in early 20th Century Iowa.  I will use it to expand lecture notes for my Iowa history class and in any writing on Iowa history.  Furthermore, this is just another example of why the Annals of Iowa is the best journal on midwestern history.  We had almost twenty submissions from almost every state in the region and this article won unanimous approval as the best of a fine bunch of submissions.”

Honorable mention:  Erik McDuffie for the article titled "The Diasporic Journeys of Louise Little:  Grassroots Garveyism, the Midwest, and Community Feminism" which appeared in Women, Gender, and Families of Color, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall 2016). 

Alice Smith Prize in Public History: 

Mackinac State Historic Parks’ Native American Cultural Trail. 

We found the Mackinac Parks project exceptional in terms of its collaboration with tribal partners after so many years of neglect and the overall public impact and importance of the project on the island. The interpretive panels were well done and the level of buy-in (both in terms of engagement and financial support) and future potential for collaboration (including a new museum) is inspiring. It is a project that has helped break down barriers between government and indigenous communities. The case for its significance is made in the proposal and the letters -- and it is a project that reaches outward to a very broad, tourist community. Ultimately, we decided to award the prize to the Mackinac Island project, believing the project has already accomplished a great deal toward building a productive long-term relationship with indigenous partners. We also acknowledge its ability to reach a large audience over time, including the hundreds of thousands of tourists that visit Mackinac Island each season.

But, there is also a special, student honorable mention this year.  Rachel Boyle, Chelsea Denault, Maggie McClain, Kelly Schmidt, Loyola, Chrysler Village History Project. 

We found the Chrysler Village Project exceptional in its emphasis on community engagement, inclusion of multiple partners (from city officials to local elementary schools and historical societies), level of student involvement and leadership, and the variety of products it produced over the project duration. It is a student-driven, bootstrapping, urban public history project in the best sense.

Hamlin Garland Prize in Popular History: 

George Frazier, The Last Wild Places of Kansas: Journeys into Hidden Landscapes (University Press of Kansas, 2016)

The Hamlin Garland Prize in Popular History recognizes a work of popular history about the Midwest published in the previous calendar year that contributes to broader public reflection and appreciation of the region’s past.  A region like the Midwest is defined by its place. Frazier's deft account of his travels through the place that is Kansas reminds us that history is as much a part of the natural environment as the Flint Hills, the highly endangered black-footed ferret, and “the highways of history” that are the “renegade” streams of eastern Kansas. Frazier is accompanied across Kansas and across time by its many peoples and their stories to bring the reader, experienced and novice alike, along for a magnificent journey that immerses them into place, and by extension the entire Midwest.

Jon Gjerde Prize for the Best Book in Midwestern History:

Christopher Phillips, The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border (Oxford University Press, 2016)

Christopher Phillips’ wide-ranging and exceptionally well-researched book—a product of years of creative work—is a transformative midwestern history. It presents a new narrative of the origins of the area we know as the Midwest, one that gets lost in the antebellum narratives that pit “the North” against “the South.” Though he recognizes that there were growing sectionalized differences north and south of the Ohio River, that river was not the boundary between a Free North and a Slave South, as it has long been known to be. Indeed, Phillips notes that the great western rivers flowed north to south. Phillips historicizes the development of the Middle Border region, showing that it was less a place of stark boundaries than a region defined by messy cultural confluences. Just as the Mississippi River itself ran backward for a time after the New Madrid earthquake of 1811-1812, so did various cultures and practices of freedom and un-freedom flow across what is not assumed to be the boundary between North and South.

This is not “just” a military history (though the book has received positive reviews from military history journals); it is a history of a region heading toward war, at war, and one whose residents sought to recreate their identities and world after war. Phillips explains—in stories deeply sympathetic to the extraordinary cast of not always salutary characters in the region—that our current understandings of regionalism were not shared in the antebellum era and are dependent as much on a history of cataclysm and loss as on Turnerian notions of “expansion,” “growth,” and pioneering courage.

Many have argued that the Civil War was the most important cataclysmic event in United States history. Phillips builds on this perspective to show how the war created a rupture of the old, messy order and began a new era in which, as he puts it, “[t]he term ‘Middle West’ emerged to distinguish the region, and more specifically to resist the emancipationist cant so closely associated with the North.” Phillips’s work deserves a wide readership. The book will certainly be studied via lectures and discussions in undergraduate classes and graduate seminars and via the rippling effects of Phillips’s arguments on histories being written now and in the future.

Honorable Mention: Nikki M. Taylor, Driven Toward Madness:  The Fugitive Slave Margaret Garner and Tragedy on the Ohio (Ohio University Press, 2016). 

There is, arguably, no more poignant or resonant story about the antebellum Midwest than the story of Margaret Garner. It made waves at the time and then as the subject of one of the most important novels of the twentieth century, and also inspired an opera, a film, and many articles and books. Nikki Taylor’s new book, the first version of Garner’s ordeal written by a black woman with a foundation in black feminist historiography, will stand as a lasting contribution to an essential chapter in the history of the Midwest, the United States, and global slavery and imperialism. That Taylor has used Garner’s story to take on the history of madness only adds to the value of this work. In this way, Taylor has brought midwestern history into the debates over how to write history in the wake of postmodernism. Now that our histories of race, class, gender, sexuality, and power have been thoroughly deconstructed, how do we reconstruct those narratives without resorting for our foundations to the kinds of power-laden structures that needed interrogation in the first place? One way to approach this history is from the profoundly subjective perspective of the people who were history’s most tragic victims and, therefore, to reconstruct history from their perspective. The point is not to retrieve the agency of the seemingly powerless, but to question the assumptions of order, progress, and narrative structure that some may argue comprise the central through-line of our history. Historicizing madness as potentially a “rational” response to the originary violence at the heart of the midwestern boundaries between slavery and freedom, brutality and hope, oppression and opportunity is a major accomplishment, especially for such a concise and readable book.

Other Finalists (in no particular order):

Nancy K. Berlage, Farmers Helping Farmers:  The Rise of the Farm and Home Bureaus, 1914-1935 (LSU Press, 2016)

Berlage’s revisionist history of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) focuses on the local narratives of progressives seeking to “modernize” agriculture and family farmers looking for ways to put the modernization of farming to their benefit. Berlage highlights the organizational aspects of this history—the ways the federation was founded, how it worked, and how this shaped and was shaped by life on the farm. She provides a sympathetic and sophisticated reading of the lives of family farmers who did not necessarily see an opposition between modernity and traditionalism. Rather, she argues, they hoped that the new world would bring resources—found through “associationalism,” a notion Berlage explains beyond the connection to President Herbert Hoover—that would allow them to continue to evolve and adapt to new situations in their setting on the farm. Berlage uses organizational history to get at the dynamics that shaped gender relations and the history of childhood in the rural United States.

Wendy Gamber, The Notorious Mrs. Clem:  Murder and Money in the Gilded Age (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016)

Gamber’s narrative of murder in rapidly expanding Indianapolis stands as a testament to many years of painstaking research and careful consideration of the implications of a story of murder for understanding everything from gender norms and women’s economic roles to changing ideas about class, respectability, success, and consumption during the decades after the Civil War. The book captures key insights about these manifest changes in midwestern life, while also properly centering the region as a key place to observe the transformations wrought by industrialization and urbanization for people in the craft, retail, and manufacturing economies during and after the war. This book demands comparison with the best historical murder stories. The book intriguingly depicts the aspirations, motives, prejudices, animosities, and jealousies at the heart of this story of growth and death.

John Reda, From Furs to Farms:  The Transformation of the Mississippi Valley, 1762-1825 (Northern Illinois University Press, 2016)

John Reda’s slim yet substantive book casts a bright light on the transformation of a region divided by the Mississippi River that later emerged at the core of what we today recognize as the Middle West. This “Illinois Country” later entered the United States as the states of Missouri and Illinois. The author makes ambitious historical claims in a well-documented argument about the United States’ imposition of sovereignty over a region that had been uncontrolled under previous European regimes, and distant from the perspective of the growing political and economic networks of U.S. citizens. Reda values the ability of the United States to establish sovereignty in the region as a kind of accomplishment of progress; yet he recognizes that such an accomplishment was and is problematic from the perspective of the Native Americans and unfree black workers in the region. Thus, Reda’s book has important implications: it both decenters the core-periphery version of the region’s founding and adds to our understanding of the white supremacist assumptions at the heart of the region’s early history. 

Frederick Jackson Turner Award for Lifetime Achievement in Midwestern History:

William Cronon, Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History and Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

His professional accomplishments are considerable and likely familiar: he is a former president of the American Historical Association, a recipient of a MacArthur Award, and his books have had tremendous impact on the fields of environmental, western, and midwestern history. In particular, his Bancroft-winning Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and Great West (1991) remains a classic examination of how Chicago markets shaped the landscapes of the Midwest and West. It is indeed one of the most important works of midwestern history of the past several decades. His book-in-progress, a history of human land use and stories about the environment that focuses on Portage, Wisconsin, since the end of the last Ice Age promises to be another path-breaking work on midwestern environmental history.

Beyond his scholarly work, he has engaged in active service to organizations working on midwestern issues, including: the Board of Curators of the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Lakeshore Nature Preserve Committee (Madison, Wisconsin), and the Aldo Leopold Nature Center (Monona, Wisconsin).

For more information on the Midwestern History Association, see the MHA’s website: www.midwesternhistory.com

Contact: Maria Howe, MHA Communications Director (mhowe@iastate.edu)