Book Review: The Good Country by Jon K. Lauck


In 1879, Walt Whitman visited Kansas. He was 60 years old, ill, and much of his best work was behind him. But he was eager to accept an invitation to help commemorate the settlement of a place he knew to be key to American democracy.

Despite having lived on the East Coast his entire life, Whitman did not view the Midwest in a provincial way: he had witnessed the horrors of the Civil War, during which a disproportionate number of Midwesterners served the cause. of the Union, and recognized the role of the region in the abolitionist movement. A year after his trip, he celebrated the region in his poem “The Prairie States”: “A new garden of creation,” he called it, “dense, gay, modern.”

Of course, that assessment is not in line with how we normally think of the Midwest. Instead of dense, gay and modern, the region is often a joke for being rural, churchy and backward. But as Jon K. Lauck points out in his provocative and well-researched book, “the good country”, the region was an extraordinary laboratory for inclusion and social progress throughout the 19th century. In fact, he writes, at the time it was “the most advanced democratic society the world had seen to date.”

How the Midwest went from idealized to ridiculed

Central to this claim is the Northwest Ordinance, the 1787 federal law that governs the administration of what would become Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Minnesota. Because the ordinance prohibited slavery, the region was cut off from the aristocratic and institutionally racist society of the South. And because the economy of the Midwest was primarily agricultural, it was different from the industrial centers of the East. So the Midwest, Lauck writes, developed “a temperate Victorianism adjusted to frontier conditions and American pragmatism.” By Lauck’s account, the region became a hotbed of intellectualism: Carnegie Libraries flourished, local literary and philosophical societies sprang up, schools were built, and land-grant universities were founded.

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This cultural expansion had progressive political effects. White men were generally free to vote without property restrictions. Black men had access to education and voting rights that were in short supply in the East and unthinkable in the South before the war. Women also won suffrage victories decades before the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920; in 1887, for example, Kansas women were granted the right to participate and vote in municipal elections. The opportunities women had to organize in the Midwest, especially within the temperance movement, gave them organizing power that made the path to voting rights that much clearer.

Lauck, an adjunct professor of history at the University of South Dakota and editor of the Middle West Review academic journal, acknowledges the imperfections of the region’s progressive virtues during this era. Racism and misogyny still tainted Midwestern politics, he notes, and Lincoln-era Republicanism faced strong headwinds. In 1833, Detroit was devastated by a race riot sparked by a dispute over escaped enslaved people, and loopholes in anti-slavery provisions abounded. Indiana might be especially unwelcoming: Frederick Douglass was assaulted during a speech there in 1843.

Five myths about the Midwest

Lauck is meticulous with documentation and footnotes on 19th century Midwestern history, but sometimes the narrative around his Midwestern argument as a progressive can be lacking.

He points to the forced removal of the Shawnee and the prevailing anti-Native American sentiment, but prefers to accentuate the positive, gesturing to the half measures around electoral and judicial rights to say that “the mainstream culture did not treat Native Americans with hostility.” incessant”: a low bar for civilization anywhere, in any century.

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And his focus on Christian churches as a refuge for tolerance and Midwestern intellectual ferment means softening, for example, the persecution of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons were “forced out of Missouri and then Nauvoo, Illinois,” he notes briefly, sidestepping the years of arson and mob violence that surrounded their forced removals in the 1830s and 1840s, punctuated by the assassination of Mormon founder religion, Joseph Smith. (In 2004, Illinois officials formally apologized by the actions of the state.)

Yet it is possible to acknowledge these stains on Midwestern history, while acknowledging Lauck’s larger point: A template for equity in education, voting rights, and community in America was established in much of it in the Midwest. Overall, it was a “culture of democratic advances, open politics, literacy and learning, economic self-determination, and ordered liberty,” Lauck writes.

A bit old fashioned too? Of course. Lauck quotes a joker who described Iowa as “where women read next year’s books even though they may wear last year’s hats.” In the 20th century, the condescending assessment that Midwesterners were earthy and wise in their own way, but fundamentally unsophisticated, would begin to take hold in the culture at large. Lauck places most of the blame for this attitude on nabob scholars like Carl Van Doren, who spearheaded a “people’s revolt” sentiment that characterized the region as steeped in retrograde Babbittry. (Lauck’s 2017 book, “From Warm Center to Ragged Edge,” explores this shift in detail.)

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Although outside the scope of “The Good Country,” Lauck provides a useful indicator for thinking about what actions might preserve (or revive) the best of the Midwestern progressive movement today, and why leaders have been so determined of late to undermine it .

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Lauck, in his conclusion, laments this turn as part of a broader “declining period” marked by “inexperienced tweeting, sensationalism, celebrity worship, extreme loneliness, and mass, manufactured, purposeful distraction.” But as his own book demonstrates, the region grew when its social nature intersected with political will and economic opportunity. If you’re right that “this old culture deserves a second look and not our condescension,” those forces also require attention.

Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and author of “the new midwest.”

A history of the American Midwest, 1800-1900

Oklahoma University Press. 366 pages. $26.95

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