The Midwestern Ethos - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Midwestern Ethos
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The Good Country: A History of the American Midwest 1800-1900
By Jon K. Lauck
(University of Oklahoma Press, 366 pages, $65)

Regional or cultural histories seem to be more in vogue now more than ever before. They have undoubtedly grown in popularity as the historical field encompasses new and varied ways of interpreting our shared past. Within this broad range of historiography, a select few have become must-reads for budding academic historians or simply those enthralled with the genre or a particular geographic area. David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed on the English and British cultural roots of colonial society, Ned C. Landsman’s Crossroads of Empire on the mid-Atlantic region during the colonial era, Grady McWhiney’s Cracker Culture about the Old South, Tamar Herzog’s Defining Nations relating to Spanish colonies in the Americas, and Robert Utley’s plethora of scholarship on the American West all showcase some of the best work on regional and cultural history. Jon K. Lauck’s recent work The Good Country: A History of the American Midwest 1800-1900 may just as well deserve a spot with the esteemed authors above.

Although not as sweeping as Fischer or as Herzog, Lauck provides his readers with a concise and profound work on an understudied region of American history, the Midwest. However, unlike many of those named above, Lauck does not delve into the cross-Atlantic influences in any serious detail. In direct contrast to his fellow Midwestern historian Richard White, whose The Middle Ground emphasized a cross-cultural and international approach with the French, Canadian, and Native peoples between 1650 and 1815, Lauck has a much more geographic and culturally refined scope, making this truly an American history rather than a world one. Nevertheless, this does little to the detriment of this work.

The aims and scope of his book are to focus on “the growth of democratic institutions,” “the development of a robust civic culture,” “a coherent identity” for those living there, “social advances” of African Americans and women, as well as “the spirit of democratic involvement and enthusiasm for reform.” The lattermost was the unifying underpinning that girded his entire work. He goes into detail chapter after chapter, demonstrating how the Midwest embodied a particular idealism embedded in the people of the region. They were dedicated to a certain moral code rooted in Judeo-Christianity, civic duties of the individuals living in a democratic republic, and a “willingness to bleed and die for one’s home.” These foundations interwove themselves with a more progressive nature of reform that emphasized education for all, a democratically minded and diverse open society, the dignity of man, and the advancement of women. This combination of factors, Lauck argues, made the Midwest unique compared to the rest of the country.

Yet, this work is not solely focused on the past. Throughout, Lauck seemed to be arguing for a return to the values that shaped Midwestern life and society. He decries the civic apathy and hyper-individuality that characterize much of today’s modern society. He posits that a look backward and a more complete understanding of Midwestern life in the 19th century could afford our culture ways to alleviate the current state of moral and civic decay. While not explicitly harping on this point throughout, his prose invites the reader to learn to respect if not revere the Midwest and the principles on which the region was built.

If all this sounds like Lauck may have too much of an affinity for his subject matter; you would not be alone in thinking this. One of the central critiques against The Good Country has been his incessant extolling of the Midwest while glossing over too many of its faults. Lauck himself notes that the Midwest was certainly not perfect, especially when it came to the treatment of African Americans in the latter half of the 19th century. While true, Lauck notes that he did not want to focus too deeply on those on the periphery of society and neglect the vast majority of the population. This also accounts for his lack of focus on the native peoples and their contributions to the Midwest.

Even when taking these minor flaws into account, the totality of his work, much like the totality of the Midwest in the 20th century, has much to be admired. The length and style make it accessible to both academics and the general public. The research is supported by nearly 100 pages of endnotes that bolster the majority of his conclusions.

Hopefully, many readers will walk away not only with a greater appreciation for the Midwest in American history, but also with a revitalization of the civic values and democratic ideals that Lauck’s Midwesterners treasured.

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