- From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920–1965 by Jon K. Lauck
Midwestern natives are used to the marginalization of their region, whether rhetorically (e.g., such common expressions as "flyover country" or "the Rust [End Page 78] Belt") or by being overshadowed by other regions like the South or the West. Thus, it would probably surprise many to learn that a century ago, midwestern history and literature had a central place in the national conversation. Frederick Jackson Turner's famous "Frontier Thesis" had attracted historical attention to the region in the 1890s, and novels set in the Midwest–including multiple volumes from authors such as Gene Stratton Porter, Meredith Nicholson, and Booth Tarkington–topped the best-seller lists. Given this fall from relevance, Jon K. Lauck's study seeks "to analyze the forces that wilted Midwestern identity by mid-century" and examine "how the Midwest as a region faded from our collective imagination, fell off the map, and became an object of derision" (3).
Lauck lays most of the blame on eastern intellectuals and critics, particularly Columbia University English professor and The Nation literary editor Carl Van Doren. In an immensely influential 1921 piece titled "Revolt from the Village," Van Doren argued that American literature had for decades adhered to "the cult of the village": an underpinning belief that small-town life was essentially good and heroic. He lauded what he saw as a recent, contrasting literary trend embodied by such works as Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, and especially Sinclair Lewis's Main Street. In these he saw a challenge to the cult with grittier and more critical portrayals of small-town life, emphasizing scandal, provincialism, and hypocrisy. Subsequent authors and historians repeated and amplified the thesis to the point that it became the prevailing narrative concerning the period.
In a manner similar to Charles Postel's revision of conventional interpretations of Populism, Lauck seeks to challenge widespread acceptance of the "village revolt" thesis. Using the private correspondence of authors and editors, he shows that the thesis played into the prejudices of other eastern critics, who further encouraged it (H. L. Mencken once said of Willa Cather, "I don't care how well she writes, I don't give a damn what happens in Nebraska" ). Further, Lauck convincingly demonstrates that the "village revolt" authors themselves–sometimes quite vociferously–raised objections to the thesis, but found their complaints (as well their later works that did not fit the theme) rebuffed by the same critics who perpetuated it. Although midwestern authors attempted to revitalize midwestern regional literature in a "failed revolt against the revolt," forces beyond their control–including eastern publishing houses that dominated the industry, the Great Depression, and World War II–ultimately foiled them. [End Page 79]
Turning to his own field of history, Lauck argues that after a small "boom" in midwestern regional history lasting until the early 1940s, a diverse number of factors caused the profession to turn away from it afterward. These included guilt-by-association attitudes regarding midwestern isolationists before the war and midwestern anticommunists afterward, theoretical trends away from regionalism, massive postwar changes to the university and the professoriate, and finally a loss of organizational structure exemplified by the transformation of the regional Mississippi Valley Historical Association into the national Organization of American Historians.
Lauck's abundant illustrative examples provide persuasive support for his major points. The "Notes" section is almost 25 percent longer than the text it documents, and draws on a wide variety of literary, historical, and popular-culture publications in addition to extensive archival work in the papers of authors, editors, and historians.
Yet the volume is more than a well-researched revisionist study: it is a manifesto for a revived field of midwestern studies. No one has done more on this front than Lauck, who was a founder of...