- Notes from the West to the Midwest
It seems productive to take a generation’s-length view of the field in an essay such as this. Looking back twenty or thirty years also gives us the chance to mark some historiographical high water, which might be usefully considered in comparison with the Midwest regional studies at this or earlier moments.
It’s well known that western history took off in the late 1980s. The New Western History, which was essentially the analytical transport of the new social history (with environmental history productively added) to the West, lit up the full sweep of American history. The New Western History grappled with—and largely vanquished—popular chestnuts about the West, what it was and what was expected of it as region. Though it arose, we’d expect, organically out of the ideas and theses and training of a handful of young scholars (whose careers have been distinguished ones), the New Western History became a hallmark inquiry in large part because it so aggressively destabilized foundations of nonacademic understandings of what the West was all about. Midwestern scholars might remember this: It was as if a dozen or so scholars of the West had met, pondered popular perceptions of the West, and then parsed out amongst them this and that myth to bust. And bust them they did. Frontier chronologies and mythologies? Blasted away. Rugged individualism? Studied, and found wanting (if found at all). Egalitarian attitudes borne of open space and room to roam? Hardly: racial violence, extralegal vigilantism, ethnic cleansing. Late nineteenth-century ruptures in process? None too certain in the face of striking continuities.1
It was all very heady. The public reacted with surprise, some angry dismissals, and a general interest in wanting to know more. The press got hold of things, and important profile pieces on western academics and on western historical insights helped propel things forward more. Universities recognized intellectual ferment, and the attendant attractions of reaching bigger [End Page 33] audiences of the public and of students, and a host of tenure-track jobs arose in support of the field. Many (all?) of the western historians close in age to myself who sit in tenured privilege at research universities or teaching colleges owe their appointments to this shakeup of the field and those who were most responsible for it. The Midwest field might profitably consider what are the hoary, simplistic, or just plain off-the-mark popular understandings of the region and, thus inspired to set the record straight or at least straighter, go to work dismantling bad history with good books.
Not that the period of the late 1980s and early 1990s was necessarily that historiographically sophisticated. We have moved from some of the less useful concerns—concerns which, in hindsight, generated far more heat than light. We made an aged strawman out of Frederick Jackson Turner and, in doing so, lost sight of his body of work in favor of the one essay on the closure of the frontier and implications thereof. We began far, far too many essays with some version of “When the young historian Frederick Jackson Turner strode to the podium in 1893 to give his famed frontier thesis . . .” Biography swept intellectual history aside somewhat, as we contradicted ourselves over and over again: Turner was no longer at the center of our inquiry about region, we said; he mattered less and less. But there we were, quoting him, visiting his training and his formative ideas and concepts, making of him the spine of our New Western History works even as we beat him up in so doing, and beat him up for being of his time. Heat, not much light.2
Other sidetracks come to mind. Western historians probably spent too much time and effort—though this is debatable—on knotty definitional problems. I’m all for defining one’s terms before plunging into analytical labor. But there just may have been a bit more monographic and other wondering about “where is, where was, the West?” I suspect the Midwest has much of the same concerns wrapped around regional work, especially since where the West starts is apparently where...