Jon Lauck: Interview
“I’m not trying to create regional identity where there isn’t any, but I’m trying to flip on the light switch.”
Let’s put it this way: I think that in the US, there are certain regions that have a stronger identity than others.
Clearly the strongest is the South, linked to the Civil War and the old Confederacy, and very different economic institutions. Slavery and the old aristocratic slaveholding made it a different place.
Secondarily, New England has a very compact, unified, old Puritan Congregational feel to it. The American West is much more romantic and beautiful. A ton of movies and films and books and this whole cowboy culture. Look at twentieth century pop culture, up to the present day, full of popular westerns. The Los Angeles Review of Books recently had a story about the continuing power of regional identity in the West.
Unfortunately, the Midwest falls through the cracks. It’s used as a stand-in for what “normal America” is all about, and therefore a place shorn of regional specifics or particularities or identity. This wasn’t always the case. Until the mid-twentieth century, there were various organizations that kept regional identity alive. Cultural groups, magazines, regional journals. The old Society for Midland Authors was started in Chicago in 1915. The Chicago renaissance of the early twentieth century, and the origins of American naturalism or realism were very much identified with the Midwest until the Depression and World War Two.
And then rather quickly, that whole regime imploded. The Midwest began to lose a lot of its old regional institutions. There are good Chicago examples. The Newberry used to focus on being a Midwestern institution, but decided to play to a bigger audience. I think there’s a lot of good associated with that, but I also think we’ve lost this sense of regional roots.
We underestimate the dramatic impact of World War Two in forcing Americans to look outwardly.
Millions of people moved around the country, moved to California and the South and to cities.
The Midwest was the heartland of isolationism in the 20s and 30s—all these people fighting against the US getting involved in foreign wars were Midwestern. Colonel McCormick in Chicago. It was very much seen as a Midwestern effort. All of that was delegitimized after World War Two.
In the intellectual realm, people began to think outwardly, to be engaged in the world, and more skeptical of old regional institutions that perhaps generated insularity. The coming of popular culture and radio and TV had a huge impact on older forms of regionalism and regional identity. There was a quote I ran across, from an Iowa farmer, and he said what changed everything was that in the 1950s the blue light came on in every farmouse in America. He meant the TV. That regional culture that had bound the Midwest together got messed up; they watched shows produced in New York and Hollywood.
It declined in most regions, but it really went through the basement in the Midwest. In the South there was the Civil Rights Movement, this regional solidarity against civil rights. The West became the hip place to be in the postwar era, with the rise of cowboy films and nature travel and environmentalism. In the 1950s, eight of the top ten shows on television were westerns.
In the Midwest, things were economically painful in the postwar era. There were severe farm depressions in the 1950s and 60s that no one remembers. And then deindustrialization hit the Rust Belt.
I’m trying to sort this out in my head, too. This is one of the things I want our movement to focus on. Why did it fall apart so quickly in the Midwest? It almost completely collapsed—very few remnants of the old regionalist institutions of the early twentieth century. I think we need to do a lot more analysis on why things fell apart so quickly.
When the Midwest was settled, its culture and institutions were highly derivative of the mother country—the mother region, in this case.
But after a certain period of time, people begin to think about asserting their own form of identity. This began in the mid-19th century in the Midwest. Writers like Hamlin Garland, for example—in his book Crumbling Idols, begins to say, “We don’t have to be dependent on the East. The East is too interested in aristocracy, they’re too elitist, too tied to Britain.” There was an economic component, with a lot of smaller farmers who were tired of paying high interest to New York banks. But the populism of the late 19th century had a cultural corollary to it, which would be a great book.
Some of these writers became organized in the late 19th century, and had their book clubs and magazines, associated with Chicago. The old journal The Midland, started by John Frederick in Iowa City, where he was teaching. The whole point of the journal is to create a space for midland writers to get their words down, because there’s a lot of frustration with people having their work rejected by New York publishers.
I think the new ecosystem of internet publications is very parallel to some of these earlier movements—in Chicago, in other Midwestern cities, to assert a stronger sense of local and regional identity.
Maybe people at the top in Chicago, when they’re surveying their peers and thinking about moving up the chain, they’re thinking about New York.
But people in the hinterland, they think of Chicago and Minneapolis. That’s how they orient themselves. But there’s not always a reverse flow; people in Chicago don’t fly to Sioux Falls for the weekend. I think that was less true in the past.
But there’s a lot of people who are middle class, maybe not the elites, who are very much focused on their region. Lots of Chicagoans go into Wisconsin to go fishing, go camping in Michigan, they take their sailboats out on Lake Michigan, they’re identifying themselves with the region in many ways. But it’s probably not as strong as it used to be.
It’s true that people resist. If you’re an elite in Atlanta, you’re probably flying to Miami to New York City for the weekend. The Georgia rural counties? Not so much. That’s more of a universal thing as opposed to a Midwestern thing.
But I suppose this is one of the reasons that a lot of regionalists in the early 20th century were critical of cities. They thought people would lose their identity there, their roots, become less connected to an area, and think in more universal, cosmopolitan terms. But there’s also a kind of mini-regionalism that goes on within a metro area—everyone who lives in Chicago and its hinterlands, Detroit and its hinterlands.
I think these early regionalists could talk about a more coherent universal Midwestern culture coming out of small towns: Christianity, and civic republicanism, small “r.”
When industrialism and urbanization peaked in the 1950s, I think that created a lot of tensions between the old agrarian order and the new urban order. But a lot of these old values carry on, because a lot of the people displaced from farming would settle in Chicago suburbs and hold onto those old values for a while.
What’s the essence of Illinois politics? The friction between Chicago and downstate. If you look at 2012, Romney and Obama—no one talks about Illinois as a swing state, but if you look at the map, Obama wins the area around Chicago, but the rest of the state is red. Maybe Springfield is blue, but there’s this lingering tension there between urban areas and the older Middle West. Same is true of Michigan.
That does complicate regionalism and regional unity, there’s no question.
There’s a spectrum that most people fall on.
There are those who by choice or their own history end up being cosmopolitan, disconnected, exiled either forcefully or self-exiled, an existential outsideness where they don’t want to be connected to a place. And then there’s other people who want to be connected, rooted, in a neighborhood or area or state, and they’re civically minded and want to care for that place. And then there are people in the middle. People from nameless, faceless suburbs who have a vague sense that they’re in the Midwest.
I’m not trying to create regional identity where there isn’t any, but I’m trying to flip on the light switch for people who may not be thinking about it consciously, but once they have had a moment to reflect and explore these connections, they realize, yeah, I am a Midwesterner. This is what that means, here’s why I’m different. And I’m going to do a bit more to support that, and subscribe to a magazine about my region, read a book about my region, explore my region a little bit.