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  • The Midwest and the Rise of American Regionalism, 1890–1915
  • Michael C. Steiner (bio)

The idea of regionalism in America was first discussed in the United States among a number of intellectuals, artists, and writers in the youthful Midwest in the 1890s. Emerging as a formal concept several decades after the Civil War, regionalism in a variety of forms, came to signify an organic harmony of loyalties—to locality, region, and nation—and it served as an antidote to the divisive force of sectionalism that demanded absolute loyalty to a particular place. The specter of civil war haunted the opening decades of regional thought as early regionalists rejected the fractious sectionalism that had preceded them.1

In its largest meaning, regionalism includes both the study of spatial variations within a culture and peoples' sense of belonging to the portion of the earth they inhabit. In this fundamental sense, regionalism is an essential variable of human experience rather than a specific ideology or social cause. It recognizes the irrepressible multiplicity of culture and nature, and it reflects how people and places interact to create an ever-changing mosaic of cultural landscapes wherever they live. A regional view of American culture, first articulated in the rising Midwest and assuming many permutations since then, envisions the nation as a fabric of interwoven parts, as a quilt of cultures. It affirms the cultural complexity of every region and encourages their connections to each other, to the nation, and eventually to the world as a whole.2

Many have contrasted the expansive qualities of regionalism to the restrictive nature of sectionalism. In a far-sighted essay published in 1948 and simply titled "Region, Nation, World," University of Minnesota professor Tremaine McDowell aptly described self-centered nationalism as a form of narrow sectionalism and stressed that "the United States has never been [End Page 9] isolated from the rest of the world as our lusty nationalists would have us believe." Rather, "we all know that the American ideal is a family of regions united in one nation and a family of nations on one planet" he sweepingly concluded, and emphasized that these "partly achieved ideals … offer as sound a precedent for a community of man as has yet emerged anywhere in the world."3

McDowell's vision of a community of regional, national, and global sensibilities prefigured a range of regional thought, with much of it emerging from the Midwest. In the mid-1970s, University of Minnesota geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, for example, speculated that the most compelling sense of place or "topophilia" would be experienced at two extremes, the region and the planet. Projecting an image of the whole earth as mosaic of intimate regions rather than patch-work of nation-states, he envisioned that "in some ideal future, our loyalty will be given only to the home region of intimate memories and, at the other end of the scale, to the whole earth." From a more pragmatic perspective, Tuan's colleague, John Fraser Hart, vigorously asserted that "The highest form of the geographer's art is producing good regional geography—evocative descriptions that facilitate an understanding and appreciation of places, areas, and regions."4

Forty years later, Michigan-based scholar June Howard echoed Tuan by visualizing the Midwest as a focal point for "the flourishing of regionalism in an age of globalism." Even more directly, University of Illinois historian Kristin Hoganson has recently argued that "The American heartland is as much a global heartland as a national one … in the sense that it took an entire world to form it." From pre-Columbian times to the present, she concludes, our region has been an "open place that has, from the start, been ensnared in a vast circulatory system" connecting it to other regions, the continent, and the entire world.5 These are a few examples of expansive regional theory that continues to rise from the Midwest more than a century after it first took root there.

Varieties of Regional Thought, from "Fishy Proposition" to "Forever Agenda"

The complex relationships between region, nation, and world have been explored in other places and at other times, but the Midwest has been especially fertile ground for such...