Myth and History in the Midwest: On Kristin L. Hoganson’s “The Heartland”

Myth and History in the Midwest: On Kristin L. Hoganson’s “The Heartland”

Kristin L. Hoganson | The Heartland: An American History | Penguin Press | April 23, 2019 | 432 Pages

The 2016 election and the opioid epidemic have brought renewed attention to the rural Midwest. For both Midwesterners and those living closer to the coasts, the “heartland myth” has become a powerful lens with which to view middle America. The heartland myth perpetuates the idea of the Midwest as the physical and moral heart of the nation—as safe, religious, white, rooted, conservative, uneducated, agricultural, rural, and inward-looking. Kristin Hoganson’s new book The Heartland: An American History uses one of the best tools to better understand what truth lies behind those stereotypes: history.

The Heartland is the latest history to debunk old tropes and stereotypes about the land and people of the middle. As a historian of U.S. foreign relations and empire, Hoganson is concerned with the part of the heartland myth that construes the Midwest as local, insulated, exceptionalist, isolationist, and provincial—in short, the portion of the myth that suggests the heartland has little to do with her field of interest: foreign relations and empire. Rather than a left-behind place of isolation, Hoganson argues that the Midwest—at least during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—was a heartland of global connections.

The book’s introduction alone is a must read. There, Hoganson deftly lays out the origins of the heartland myth to reveal that it was created out of political expediency after World War II rather than the natural result of geography and history. By establishing that the heartland myth—both the truths and the stereotypes it reflects—was not a foregone conclusion, but constructed to satisfy the political needs of a specific historical moment, Hoganson uncovers a Midwestern past that has been concealed in myth. 

From the vastness that is the rural heartland, Hoganson uses her own community as a starting point: Champaign, Illinois. From there, she starts The Heartland in the Midwest but follows its people, commodities, and connections across the continent and globe. In writing a synthetic history of the nineteenth-century Midwest, Hoganson joins the ever-increasing number of Midwestern historians making an important critical turn—Hoganson takes the heartland on its own terms and rooted in its own perspectives, but in the process she finds as much to laud as to disparage. 

Through farmers’ perspectives, she finds examples of global consciousness, agrarian solidarity, and American empire-building. Each chapter tackles one aspect of the heartland myth, and thus The Heartland contributes to multiple scholarly literatures by resituating the Midwest as the focal point. For instance, Hoganson situates the Midwest as a place where northern and southern borderlands meet, not as an isolated space in between. Rather than insulated from global markets, Midwest farmers were acutely aware of their direct competition with agricultural producers around the world. Further, Hoganson reveals Midwesterners to have been people who were “flownover” but who also had their own views of where they fit in the world. In short, she demonstrates that when we recenter the Midwest as the vantage point, we expose a sense of being in the middle of everything.

Hoganson argues that the heartland myth is built upon the idea of “locality”—the sense of place embedded in the provincial, inward-looking, small communities that dot the Midwest’s landscape. Pioneers and their descendants created locality by publishing local histories, which nearly always started with settler contacts with Native people and ended with the family farm. Local histories tied geographic space to community andwere instruments of settler colonialism: they established a sense of locality that supported claims to land that actually belonged to Native peoples. Assumptions about space and place-making, Hoganson argues, continue to undergird the heartland myth.

Indeed, the true strength of The Heartland lies in the first and last chapters, where Hoganson develops these claims through the lens of Kickapoo history. The Kickapoo are the Native people who once lived on the land that is now home to Champaign, Illinois. Champaign’s white settlers wrote local histories that justified physically removing the Kickapoos from the land, leaving only Native place names across the prairie. 

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the federal government forcibly pushed the Kickapoo from their lands in the Illinois area down to what is now Kansas and Missouri, then into Oklahoma, Texas, and even Mexico. In a raid of a Kickapoo settlement in Mexico in 1873, the U.S. military killed at least 19people while trying to force the Kickapoo back onto reservations in the U.S. Over a century later, the Kickapoo people were still endeavoring to preserve their identity, having traveled back to the Midwest as seasonal agricultural laborers from Mexico after World War II. In the 1980s, those living along the U.S.-Mexico border successfully sought sovereignty and tribal recognition accompanied by, and in tension with, U.S. citizenship. 

Hoganson makes clear that the history of the Kickapoo is the history of the heartland. Where the heartland myth leaves no narrative space for the exile and dispossession experienced by the Native people who once lived in the Midwest, the Kickapoo narrative upturns ideas of the Midwest as safe, stable, and fixed. At the very least, the history demands recognition of the ways in which the security that the heartland offers to one group of people (white male pioneers and their descendants) came at the cost of detachment and exclusion from a place for another group of people (the Kickapoo and other people of color). 

The Heartland is a book that responds to the current political moment in two ways. In addition to addressing why history matters now for debunking myths that were born of, and continue to support, racism, The Heartland is also a book for a broad readership that makes transparent the methods of the historian. For example, despite not being published by a university press, the book retains diligent footnotes to archival sources, many of which are freely available online. In today’s world where the line between fact and opinion is blurred, a crucial element in debunking a well-established myth is documenting the facts that support the argument. Additionally, between each chapter are snippets of quotes from archival sources. These “archival traces” foreshadow the development of the book’s narrative and demonstrate how historians use archival sources to puzzle about historical questions and use multiple archival fragments to form arguments.

Unfortunately, little of Hoganson’s expertise on gender and sexuality, which she has mobilized in her other scholarship, is on display in the book. She focuses instead on threading through an argument about the use of the heartland myth to perpetuate white nationalism. Although bookended by the Kickapoo story, examples abound in the book including white male midwestern farmers concerned with racial purity and lineage of their livestock, plants, and by inference, their neighbors. So too were they likewise engaged in projects of imperial racial uplift through efforts like livestock breeding programs. For Hoganson, the heartland myth that the Midwest is the national stronghold or the quintessential safe space is not just a little white lie, it is a “white nationalist lie.” 

Myths are powerful because they provide a lens with which to see ourselves and others, to interpret change, and to assert political influence. Hoganson makes clear that the heartland myth is premised on incomplete references to flawed histories. In so doing, Hoganson has set the stage for others to evaluate the ways in which the heartland myth has shaped the culture we live in today. Indeed, as more historians continue to debunk the myths and stereotypes of the rural Midwest, we must also pay careful attention to the work the heartland myth has performed in twentieth- and twenty-first-century politics and culture.

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