Where Progress and Tradition Held Hands: On Jon K. Lauck's "The Lost Region"

Where Progress and Tradition Held Hands: On Jon K. Lauck's "The Lost Region"

Jon K. Lauck | The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History | University of Iowa Press | 2013 | 180 Pages

Success is unremarkable. At the very least, solid, steady prosperity does not make great copy for the papers. You might even say that this is the theme of Midwestern history—the region’s very stability has allowed it, on occasion, to slip past historians and ordinary people alike. 

In The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History, Jon K. Lauck argued that this neglect is undue and that the region’s role is more formative for this country than we commonly realize. It is past time, Lauck suggests, to return to the study and remembrance of a place that is figuratively and literally central to the national story. With the approachable and generous style of a good educator with an authentic love of his subject, Lauck paints a picture of a once vigorous field of study and summons his fellow American historians to revive Midwestern history as an integral area of their own discipline. 

In setting forth the reasons for the importance of this region in the American story, Lauck begins with a remarkable observation—that in its infancy the Midwest grew into the unique position of being more American than America itself. In this fresh stretch of the country beyond the Appalachian mountains, settlers were unhampered by the class structures or institutional inertia of the East, and thus became capable of applying the Republican, egalitarian ideals of the American Revolution more consistently than their eastward neighbors. 

Under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which constituted the organic law of American land west of Pennsylvania, the claims of equality and liberty made in the Declaration of Independence seemed to hold truer than elsewhere: Slavery was ruled out before it had the chance to begin, and the law inscribed the protection of the rights of native peoples within the territory as a fundamental precept. In small   frontier towns, civic associations and local governments were strong. There were no old monied families, and a cultural emphasis on an unassuming egalitarianism took hold. Of course, this pioneering country was no utopia, and any description as brief as the one just given will pass over much. Nonetheless, there was something about the newness of the region that, in the words of Joyce Appleby, as quoted in Lauck’s book, rooted out “pervasive colonial residues of hierarchy and privilege.”

Similarly, the region’s cultural development had something essentially American in it: Ethnic separations carried from the old world were fused into something new in the crucible of the early frontier. Lauck notes that from its early days the Midwest was one of the most ethnically diverse parts of the world and yet, again, we barely notice it. The circumstances of the place had a mellowing effect on these identities, which became rooted instead in the land and the communities scattered across it. Polarization and alienation seem to have been kept at bay by a deep cultural emphasis on politeness and by the apologetic mode, so often portrayed in pop culture, that is typical of Midwesterners. Interestingly, this description comports well with the way in which the late Toni Morrison described her own Midwestern childhood in 1930s Lorain, Ohio. In her experience, the fundamental sense of identity was shared with her white neighbors. White or black, they were first and foremost members of the Lorain community. 

It was by virtue of the Midwest’s position as the third region of the country—after the northeast and the south—that it would play the pivotal role in the conflagration between the two existing, and incompatible, cultures at play in early America. As Lauck explains: 

When the cultural and economic conflicts between the yeoman republicanism of the North and plantation aristocracy of the South finally triggered the American Civil War, the Midwest determined which political and economic system would prevail and thus the course of American history. 

We know, of course, where the Midwest threw its mass of resources, men, and women. And it was from the young heartland that Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan rose up to lead the effort.

The first part of Lauck’s book looks to wipe away prejudices about the Midwest as uninteresting and to point out the ways in which it has played a unique and central role in the affairs of the country. Part of the reason why that role goes unnoticed, Lauck suggests, is that the Midwestern identity is commonly seen as somehow standing in for the American identity at large and not as the character of an alienated sub-region. The influence of the country’s center is sometimes unnoticed precisely because it is so huge. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Europe extends to the Alleghenies; America lies beyond.”

From here, Lauck moves into a longer discussion of Midwestern historiography. In this portion of the book, we read of the various early historical societies and journals that occupied the land from the Platte to the Ohio rivers, and we learn a good deal about Frederick Jackson Turner and his students (whom we all remember, or ought to remember, from our sections on “Manifest Destiny” in American history class). One of Lauck’s interesting arguments in this section is that Midwestern history has something unique to offer American history writ large. The great Midwestern historians, like the Iowan Carl Becker, rejected both extreme relativism and absolutist objectivism—in other words, they saw truth as the real goal of history, but balanced this conviction with the humble recognition of bias and of the fragmentary methods available to us for reaching that truth. This is important for historians and ordinary people alike, because both alternatives risk making history subservient to politics. On the one hand, relativism can reduce history to an implement in struggles over power, and, on the other, objectivism can lead to political hubris. Both run the danger of glossing over the great complexities of human life in the world. It seems fittingly Midwestern that even its historians tended to aim at charting a middle way between extremes.  

Lauck’s book was a very fine contribution to the effort at which it aimed, namely, the revival of a historical understanding of the country’s center. This is doubly important. First, because in a time of increasing geographical, demographic, and political balkanization a shared understanding between the country’s different regions might be salutary. Second, because the people of the Midwest are losing our collective memory—and ours is a remarkable story that ought not to be lost.

Nonetheless, from the perspective of a broad revival of Midwestern History, it is a book with certain clear limitations. First among these is that a scholarly monograph from a university press that spends much of its time in the back alleys of historiography will have only a niche appeal. If it is towards a retrieval of Midwestern history that we look, we will need popular historians. We will need tales and songs and artworks to help us understand our own story. Because, as Lauck points out, the Midwest has so much to offer,  I would have liked to have seen some sort of discussion of the way Midwestern history might be revived outside the academy and among the people. One of the reasons for writing, telling, and learning history is to give us a shared store of memories and tales that help us to understand ourselves as members of a community. For history to work its way into the hearts of ordinary people, it takes the work of culture. How this is done is a difficult question, and reasonably outside of this book’s scope, but it is a question worth working to understand.

It is a sign of the book’s success, though, that I was left wishing for the popular historian who can ignite the imagination of the heartland. The work of history must begin, of course, on the academic level, but Lauck’s book also left me itching for a storyteller who can, honestly and thoroughly, give a compelling picture of this place where the human drama has played out in its own way (David McCullough’s recent The Pioneers may be a step in this direction). In a time of political uncertainty, it might be worthwhile for us to hear of that strange Midwestern balancing act whereby mundane stability gave rise to civic and moral courage, and where progress and tradition held hands.

This review is part of our series on Midwestern history, a collection of reviews on texts of historical significance in the region. Writers interested in contributing to this series are encouraged to contact its editor, Jacob Bruggeman.

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