Happy University Press Week! Today the UP Week Blog Tour’s theme is history and makes a stop at our blog with a post from Jon K. Lauck, adjunct professor of history and political science at the University of South Dakota and the author of numerous books, on the importance of Midwestern history. The following is an excerpt from the introduction of Finding a New Midwestern History (Nebraska, 2018).
About lunchtime on the first Saturday in May of 2015, midwesterners from Toledo to Chicago were caught off guard by the unfamiliar rumble of an earthquake underfoot. Registering a modest magnitude of 4.2, the tremor caused limited damage—chimneys cracked, wall plaster splintered, cans of soup toppled from their shelves. Since such events are rare for the Upper Midwest, most commentators called the earthquake a freak occurrence. Near the epicenter of the quake, at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, historians of the American Midwest had gathered that same day at another extremely rare event—to discuss the history, culture, and geography of their region. The symbolism of these simultaneously rare occurrences was not lost on the scholars gathered in Michigan at a conference to talk about their region and its lost history.
In comparison to such regions as the South, the Far West, and New England, the Midwest and its culture—the history of its peoples and places; its literature, music, and art; the complexity and richness of its landscapes—had been neglected. And this neglect has been both scholarly and popular: historians as well as literary and art critics tend not to examine the Midwest seriously in their academic work, while the myth of the Midwest has not, in the popular imagination, ascended to the level of the proud, literary South; the cultured and storied Northeast; or the hip, innovative West Coast. The longtime regionalist and University of Nebraska historian John R. Wunder recently observed that large universities have abandoned the field of midwestern history, few scholars identify themselves as midwestern historians, research chairs in midwestern history are lacking, and graduate students are not trained in the field. Wunder argues that the “infrastructure for the study of the Midwest is missing.” Too many colleges in the Midwest, some argue, tend to “shun the communities around them and to present themselves as not really Midwestern, but as scholarly outposts in flyover territory.” In scholarly circles at the end of the twentieth century, the Midwest had become a “lost region.”
What the historians gathered in Michigan in the spring of 2015 hoped to effect was, if not a seismic shift in scholarly and popular sentiment, at least a few rumbles on the cultural landscape, or to move the needle a bit on the cultural Richter scale. They hoped to give greater energy to the effort to revive midwestern history, which has of late included the creation of a new Midwestern History Association devoted to advancing the study of the Midwest similar to the scholarly associations active in other regions. This effort has been bolstered by new academic journals and other outlets designed to promote the study of and writing about the Midwest. At long last, it seems, substantive progress is being made toward reviving the field of midwestern history. The scholars gathered in Michigan in the spring of 2015 sought to spur and support that revival, and the chapters gathered here, which are derived from the lectures at that conference, are designed to move us toward a new and more robust field of midwestern history. With the critical leadership and assistance of the Hauenstein Center at Grand Valley State University and the Midwestern History Association, the 2015 “Finding the Lost Region” conference was held again in 2016, 2017, and 2018, and the conference became a critical generator of emerging work on the Midwest that is leading to larger projects.
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Based on the success of that earth-moving conference in 2015… and on various and related initiatives, we think that progress is being made and that, as Wisconsin’s largest newspaper has opined, the “study of Midwestern history is now having a moment.” We hope to make it last.
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