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  • Midwestern RegionalismPlace, Time, and Perspective
  • Terry A. Barnhart (bio)

New regional studies and histories—as Homer might well say—come and go like leaves in the forest. Responding to scholarly trends, midwestern regionalism, much like the glaciers that shaped the midwestern landscape, has advanced and retreated numerous times. Whether it was the "new regionalism" of the 1920s assessed in Carey McWilliams's The New Regionalism in American Literature (1930), Howard W. Odum and Harry Estill Moore's classic American Regionalism (1938), Merrill Jensen's Regionalism in America (1951), Charles Reagan Wilson's The New Regionalism: Essays and Commentaries (1998), or the current reawakening regarding midwestern history stemming from the numerous writings of Jon K. Lauck, regionalism in American history and culture has produced a rich literature notwithstanding periods of dormancy. As a concept and an approach to understanding American pluralism it has had no shortage of advocates and critics. Regionalism translates as American pluralism along with race, ethnicity, nationality, class, and gender—categories of historical analysis that are by no means divorced from regional studies—and reminds us that American regions preceded the creation of the nationstate, influenced its formation, and continue to shape its heterogeneity. The American South, New England, and the Southwest—where regional consciousness has produced a large literature—have received a disproportionate amount of attention. Comparatively speaking the Midwest is an understudied region, although it is becoming much less so today due to a revival of midwestern studies.

A consistent theme within the historiography of the American Midwest is that the region has been largely overlooked in American history—if not [End Page 1] in an absolute sense at least in a relative one. Finding a New Midwestern History (2018) by Jon K. Lauck, Gleaves Whitney, and Joseph Hogan, editors, together with Lauck's The Lost Region (2013) are calls for a renewal of midwestern history—one that reclaims the primacy that historians once assigned it within the broader sweep of the national experience. Lauck laments the region's relative neglect both in the media and in more recent years by historians. David M. Fahey expresses a similar regret regarding scholarly trends and abandonments. Yet all is not a desert. Past neglect is partially mitigated by the works of Lauck, the meetings of Midwestern History Association, and the offerings of relatively recent journals: Middle West Review, Studies in Midwestern History, Midwestern Gothic, Old Northwest Review and The New Territory. State historical journals significantly add to that coverage, however sporadically, as they have done since their beginnings in the nineteenth century.1

Nor is it likely that the most recent resurgence will abate any time soon given the premium placed on localism, regionalism, and identity politics throughout the globe and not just in the United States. Midwestern regionalism will likely once again have periods of relative quiescence if the history of the subject is any indicator of future scholarly inclinations. As Andrew R.L. Cayton and Susan E. Gray observed in The American Midwest: Essays on Regional History (2001), global trends in regionalism and identity politics make any marginalization of midwestern history all the more "ahistorical" and myopic since the region "prefigured" many of the developments still afoot in American culture and cultures around the world. In equal measure with which the history of the Midwest has been comparatively understudied it has more recently been reaffi rmed. A compensatory movement to rediscover and revalue Midwestern history has been in full stride for some time now and has received further impetus with the appearance of Lauck et al. Finding a New Midwestern History. Scholars across many disciplines will continue to ask what parts of the Midwest are incontrovertible facts, what parts dubious myths, and what are the gray areas of half-truth lying between those extremes. Midwestern historians have oft en found it necessary and therapeutic to explain themselves to themselves as well as to "outlanders."2

A thread of continuity in the narrative of the Midwest is that it is the most characteristically American region. Odum and Moore observed in American Regionalism (1938) that the "unity of diversities"—ostensibly an oxymoron—explained midwestern cohesiveness. Yet however paradoxical [End Page 2] it is a conclusion arrived at...