An excerpt from
Beyond the Frontier
The Midwestern Voice in American Historical Writing
David S. Brown
The Golden Meridian
If all the world were Wisconsin, the twentieth century might have been an age of the golden meridian in which small producers and industrial craftsman used republican ideals of equal rights to moderate the special privileges that had been granted to big business under laissez-faire liberalism.
—Alan Dawley, 2003
The Midwest is a state of mind. Close your eyes and think college football, county fairs, and family picnics; think heartland, breadbasket, Dubuque farms and Des Moines factories; think Pleasantville (IA), Pleasant Hill (OH), New Haven (MI), New Hope (MN), and New Harmony (IN). The most “American” of all American places, the Midwest is the spiritual soil of resident sons and daughters Gatsby, Babbitt, Sula, and Carol Kennicott. Home of the five-and-dime underdog and habitat to second cities, it lives in four seasons, farms on flat lands, and swims in Great Lakes. In a nation forever faithful to its redemptive rendezvous with destiny, the Midwest imagines itself the country’s indispensable karmic balance—the village reply to the epic “Bosnywash” megalopolis, the humble yeoman contrast to a doomed southern hierarchy, and the commonsense salvation to coastal California’s fever dream for the new.
And think history—made and written. Actors in the long age of reform bookended by the Reconstruction 1870s and the New Deal 1930s, many of the nation’s great industrialists, most of its presidents, and a striking number of influential historians shared midwestern roots. In the years after this ascendancy, an interior-minded historical consciousness has continued to engage a diverse and critical public readership. It is distinguished by a typology of progressive thought and politics—democratic, populistic, isolationist—different from the liberal typology of thought and politics—elite, urban, interventionist—favored by the cosmopolitans. At times these visions have clashed. Secure in their identities as Wasp insiders, the middle-westerners in these pages never doubted their section’s unique contributions to national life, nor their own roles as regional interpreters. “Perhaps we of the West are only children who believe in Santa Claus,” Wisconsin historian John Hicks wrote in the troubled 1930s. “But perhaps western belief that the disorders of the world can yet be righted will help to right them, perhaps even the naïve western assumption that the American experiment in democracy cannot possibly fail will help to keep it from failing.”
The peculiar strain of geographic fate advanced by Hicks found its most suggestive expression in the works of Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Beard, William Appleman Williams, and Christopher Lasch. Collectively, this group advanced a century of scholarship sympathetic to populistic politics, critical of America’s swift drift toward empire, and unreconciled to unrestrained capitalism. All were children of the Middle West and all struggled with the multiple meanings of their regional inheritance, meshing sharp and searching intellects with a faint but unmistakable provincialism.
Taking into account their all-too-human strengths and weaknesses, it seems appropriate to ask by what reasoning we might consider this midwestern persuasion, with its romantic undercurrent and partisan historical vision, worth our critical reflection. The answer is impact. Iconic books, scholars, and schools have left a long and influential legacy on the academy and the culture. It is the “big idea” that usually moves debate forward, and these men most decidedly moved debate forward. They labored productively in a profession dedicated to objectivity yet produced a wide stream of studies that combined the archivist’s talent for research with the humanist’s passion for the graceful grand narrative. In Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893), Beard’s President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War (1948), Williams’s The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), and Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven (1991), the American metathemes of character, democracy, empire, and progress were addressed under the academic cover of footnotes. They, and others of their genus, allow us to reflect on the past in ways that go beyond raw and often isolated facts. They integrate memory with myth to comment on civic culture, shape public debate, and guide opinions. They speak not merely to our intellect but also to our sensibilities and sense of self. We look for our lives between their covers.
At its heart, mythology seeks to explain the nature and ways of the world. We use fables and folktales to understand our communities, our leaders, and our times. More generally, myths are mediums for conveying culture. The rise of the post–Civil War Middle West stirred regional pride and encouraged ways of reconceptualizing the section’s people and its past, often in a language spiced with license, exaggeration, and allegory. Heroic dimensions were the order of the day as the likes of Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and John Henry tickled the American imagination. In legends one could discover hidden truths and latent possibilities. An evocative midwestern architecture (farmer gothic), style of painting (the bucolic regionalism of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton), literature (the elegiac F. Scott Fitzgerald), and poetry (Carl Sandburg’s Chicago verses) moved interior thought and expression beyond the literal.
The region’s historians had their say as well. To speak of a Midwestern School is to shorthand the collectors of creation myths, a group of pastmasters who internalized and revealed with clarity and rare insight the faiths and fears of their neighbors. Turner’s frontier thesis encapsulated both the promise and the perils of American expansion; Beard placed the virtues of social democracy above the old property-rights conservatism, while both Williams and Lasch panned a capitalist elite in favor of a revived populism. As critics of an emergent military-industrial complex, they reflected their region’s suspicion of the new order and responded sympathetically to its psychological needs. Thus, while I take quite seriously their remarkable and indeed canonical contributions to “objective” historical scholarship, I respect as well the curative value of their work. Books can be like medicine.
As intellectuals rooted in a middle-western frame of reference, Turner and his successors were vulnerable to the region’s uneven fortunes. This uncertainty encouraged a body of research that ranged from the confident and expansive to the cautious and narrow. In the period 1890–1930, the interior claimed a special status among the nation’s sections. A long train of recent Ohio Valley presidents testified to its political arrival, while the persistence of Anglo/rural folkways in an increasingly ethnic/urbanized country gave heartlanders the hereditary high ground. As an editorialist put it in 1912, “One finds in the Middle West today a larger proportion of men and women whose ideas, habits, and institutions are essentially those of Colonial America and of England, than can be found now in the East.”
This regional vanity suffered successive blows in the 1930s and 1940s. FDR’s vigorous response to the Depression ushered in a fresh political dynamic that reoriented the party system from parochial to metropolitan. Soon thereafter, World War II ratified the new alignment by shattering the old isolationism. In a 1941 essay, Life magazine publisher Henry Luce explained where all of this was heading—he called it “The American Century.” The son of missionaries, Luce urged his countrymen to abandon their continental solitude and aggressively push democracy around the globe. If liberal nations failed to expand, he argued, they would surely succumb to the authoritarian likes of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. “We are not in a war to defend American territory,” he wrote. “We are in a war to defend and even to promote, encourage and incite so-called democratic principles throughout the world.” Taking a long view of matters, we might find it appropriate to anoint 1898 rather than 1941 as year one of the American Century. Luce was born 3 April of that year—less than three weeks before William McKinley signed a congressional joint resolution proclaiming Cuba’s independence from Spain. This document authorized the president to use military force if necessary to guarantee the island’s “freedom.” The resulting “splendid little war” made the United States an imperial power and christened its problematic engagement with internationalism.
Luce belonged to a generation that, despite its rhetorical support for representative government, had lost faith in popular politics. Too deliberate, divided, and idealistic, the Western democracies had failed to stem German and Japanese marches across Europe and Asia. In reply, America’s postwar globalists created fresh military, bureaucratic, and academic structures of power to contain a rising threat—Soviet influence. The new policy experts hoped to save democracy from itself, and they abandoned the old Jeffersonian fantasy of an empire of liberty for a leviathan strong enough to shore up Western civilization. As one historian recently observed, “The American Century reflected a turn away from democratic idealism and a turn toward the ‘realism’ of strong authoritative ‘statesmen.’ … The language of democracy proliferated, but the practice of democracy narrowed.” At its critical best, the Middle West thoughtfully addressed the deficiencies and dangers of the American Century. Imperial presidencies, covert wars, and a bourgeoning fiscal-military state were the high prices paid, its more skeptical reviewers warned, for enlarging the sphere of “secretive” power in a people’s republic.
It might be helpful at this point to place the Midwestern School of historians in context. It once stood among a handful of sectionally centered intellectual movements that included the Vanderbilt “Fugitives,” a notable collection of prewar southern writers, poets, and historians inveighing against America’s hastily constructed liberal-industrial regime. In I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930), Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, et al. composed an elaborate statement on the superiority of Dixie civilization in a nation spiraling, they complained, toward a soulless, unreflective worship of machines and technology. The market crash and subsequent Depression won their work a respectful hearing, yet in the 1940s America moved quickly to create a vast consumer-containment culture predicated on speed, flux, and conversion. The fading hope among some conservatives for a useful southern break from late modernity had already passed.
A second school, the Columbia University social scientists, captured the imagination of the postwar academy and played a key role in liberalism’s rapid rise to ideological predominance. These scholars, comprised in the main of men of Eastern European and Russian Jewish background, including Daniel Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Robert K. Merton, watched the disturbing growth of McCarthyism with great concern. They felt certain that a toxic mixture of mass society and mass democracy energized the Far Right, and in its place they pushed a tough-minded liberalism, one open enough to create opportunities for reform at home while vigorously fighting a cold war abroad. In accordance with this vision, they warmly embraced an expert-based culture: experts to oversee the New Deal state’s vast social welfare programs, experts to operate the industrial might of the U.S. economy, and experts to run a greatly expanded and increasingly complex military. In this devotion to anointed intellectual authority resided a central premise that cut against the grain of the nation’s egalitarian conventions—the few were to command the many.
For all their differences, the Vanderbilt and Columbia schools shared a common prejudice: each privileged a collection of particular regional values embedded in specific cultural traditions. And in their own ways, each betrayed an antidemocratic preference for American development in the twentieth century. The southern vision longed for a return to local elite control in the nation’s regional centers; the eastern vision imagined a national elite running a top-down meritocracy.
The midwestern historians took a different tack. Unburdened by the quasi-aristocratic culture that stalked the southern imagination or the minority “otherness” familiar to many in the ethnically tinged liberal intelligentsia, they were passionate about the possibilities of democracy and unafraid of popular protest, which both their scholarship and their teaching recognized as a vital part of the American political tradition.
Three historical schools, three historical contexts. The Vanderbilt vision understood democracy and mass culture to mean the welter of force and power that smashed southern nationhood to bits in the 1860s and had subsequently made deep assaults on southern cultural practices. The Columbia social scientists understood the underside of democracy and mass culture to mean the unleashing of popular resentments by majority Anglos on minority immigrants—anti-Semitism passing as respectable cold war red-baiting. The Midwestern School, by contrast, embraced a frankly egalitarian identity. Its members basked in the regional inheritance of a great democratic tradition, the Populist/Progressive age of change. And more, they enjoyed the status of “insiders,” Wasps whose patriarchs had crossed the Appalachians, won the Free-Soil war to reunite the nation, and established a slew of democratic state universities to counter the eastern grip on intellect. They saw themselves as a chosen people.
Exploring the life and times of the Midwestern School of historical writing allows us to observe the rise and fall—and rise and fall—of the last century’s two great reform movements, progressivism (1890–1945) and liberalism (1945–1970). The distance between the Midwest’s Protestant, populistic historians and their by turns Brahmin and Jewish counterparts at Harvard and Columbia encapsulates in the academy a larger cultural struggle played out in American politics between isolationists and internationalists, egalitarians and experts, provincials and cosmopolitans.
Unlike the electorally solid South and Northeast, the Midwest is a fluid political creature. No reform candidate—and no conservative candidate—has walked into the White House without first winning its allegiance. The progressive Republican Theodore Roosevelt won the region in 1904; the progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson took most of it in 1912; Franklin Roosevelt swept the Midwest in 1932. as did Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Bill Clinton (excepting Indiana) in 1992. These states also went unanimously for McKinley in 1896, Harding in 1920, Eisenhower in 1952, Nixon in 1972, and Reagan (excepting Minnesota) in 1980. In the postwar push for civil rights, a recalcitrant South shifted its loyalties from the Democratic to the Republican Party. During these decades the Midwest has held, and still holds, the balance—when it joins the South, conservative candidates tend to win; when it ballots with the Northeast, liberals have their best chance of victory.
As a political player, the Midwest came of age in the shadow of Appomattox. A commitment to Reconstruction and Populist era platforms propelled the region’s reform heritage into the next century. Throughout these later days, the Wisconsin Idea—an experiment combining university expertise and political power to improve the lives of the state’s citizens—sought to make corporate influence defer to a democratic polity. It did so by encouraging professors in the social sciences to pioneer relationships with the statehouse that laid the foundations for fairer and more equitable tax, labor, and utility laws. In many respects, this melding of intellect and legislative power foreshadowed the regulatory state later crafted by Woodrow Wilson and still more completely by FDR.
It was at this point that a number of factors combined to split the East-Midwest political consensus that had, beginning with Lincoln, dominated American presidential politics. Much of the power once wielded by the Gilded Age interior ebbed back to the coast, the maturation of immigrant populations in eastern cities created a fresh ideological dynamic, and the new postwar liberalism seemed intent—following the destruction of the popular dictatorships in Germany and Italy—to clip the old reform tradition’s ties to its populist roots.
A similar tearing of allegiances took place in the American historical profession. Certain sectional pressures had always informed relations between the new state schools and their elder Ivy brethren, yet these differences rarely rippled beyond the prewar academy. As progressivism gave way to liberalism, however, and liberalism bent toward advancing an elite rather than egalitarian vision of national life, the Midwestern School questioned the direction and sentiment of the new politics. It promoted, they insisted, an autocratic meritocracy culminating in presidential “courts,” intellectually compromised multiversities, and highbrow attacks on those segments of the population (generally middle-western and Sunbelt right-wingers) that remained enamored with a pre–New Deal political culture. Many historians today lament the lack of an overarching synthesis in their profession and point to the pluralistic social history pioneered in the 1960s as the reason. There is some truth to this, yet it explains only part of the story. Ideologically, the grand synthesis began to split at the seams a generation earlier in the unquiet commotion of the progressive-liberal quarrel.
While writing a biography of the liberal historian Richard Hofstadter, I found myself interested in exploring the broader historiographical context in which his scholarship—and that of his critics—surfaced. I tend to think of that book and this one as constituting a cohesive work, an exploration of the ideological conflicts and ethno-cultural pressures that shaped American historical writing in the American Century. I cannot, of course, stake a claim to comprehensiveness. For there are other schools of history—southern, social, New Left, etc.—that are only glancingly reviewed in my contributions. But it seemed to me in sizing up the history of the historical profession—its impact on intellectual and political life, its evolution from a simple Waspish sensibility to one increasingly complex and diverse—that its major lines of confrontation, development, and growth were reflected in the progressive-liberal dichotomy.
I hope not to have favored one school over the other. There is, after all, much to appreciate all around, for the collective achievements of both have yielded a rich and enduring literature. The midwestern historians initially wrote from within the main currents of a native reform tradition. In the postwar years, by contrast, they composed in opposition to a consensus historicism that quickly came to dominate their increasingly conservative profession. As both majority and minority, these scholars discovered a mission for their historical imagination that spanned the century and touches us still.
Today, in the age of the Near Eastern wars, the postindustrial economy, and the divisive politics of family values, once subterranean concerns about empire, equality, and morality have returned in force. Opponents of imperialism and deregulated capitalism may or may not come from the Middle West, but they often convey their protest in a populist idiom and frame of reference that recalls the “history as conflict” worldview that absorbed Charles Beard’s generation. This continuity should come as no surprise. A broad view of historical writing urges us recognize just how recently our modern midwestern universities and scholars emerged.
In 1889, Francis Parkman congratulated Frederick Jackson Turner on his study The Fur Trade in Wisconsin, “which,” he reported, “I have examined with much interest.” In 1922, Merle Curti began writing a Harvard dissertation under Turner’s direction, and in 1948 David Cronon arrived in Madison to commence his graduate studies in Curti’s department. Nearly sixty years later, in 2005, Cronon discussed with me his recollections of practicing history in the Midwest. The strikingly small degree of separation between Parkman and us underlines the familylike nature of the interpretive debates carried on among cross-country colleagues in what used to be a rather small and intimate profession. Today, deeply worn grooves on the marble stairs at the Wisconsin Historical Society connect the modern researcher to the century and more of historians and history seekers who came before. Here one walks, literally, in Turner’s steps.
The social/political singularity of the Madison experience made it at one time and for a long time something of a mythical destination for intellectually curious young people. In its heyday, Wisconsin’s enrollments were replenished by UW history grads teaching in the big-city universities and small-town colleges of the Midwest, excited to send their best and brightest “home” to the eternal city of midwestern historical writing for an education that might change their lives.
That education came in a distinctly “American” dialect. Suspicious of eastern power, many interior historians embraced a frankly provincial and populistic vision of the past. The frontier (not the cities) promoted democracy, common citizens (rather than intellectuals) best understood the national interest, and open-door imperialism (advanced under the aegis of “liberal internationalism”) endangered republican government at home. Of course some of these deeply internalized “truths” have held up better than others. George Mosse, a German Jewish émigré who spent the balance of his academic career at Wisconsin, understood well the sentimental regionalism that seduced his colleagues: “I believe that a feeling of a lost utopia—disappointment with the lack of effectiveness of their midwestern vision of America—determined to a large extent their outlook upon the past.” To understand the depths of this vision and its impact on our culture and our country, we must approach the historians of the Middle West critically but with some degree of kinship. Their American Century, after all, has become our own.