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Bridey Heing | Longreads | April 2019 | 10 minutes (2,589 words)

The American Midwest is hard to define. Even which states can be considered “Midwestern” depends on who you ask; is it what lies between Ohio and Iowa? Or does the Midwest stretch further west across the Great Plains; north into Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas; or east into parts of Pennsylvania and New York state? Perhaps part of the confusion over the term is rooted in the idea that the Midwest represents far more than a geographic space — it represents a vision of the country as a whole, and is a stand-in for nostalgia, despite the fact that the reality of the nation, and the Midwest along with it, has always been far messier than any myth.

In her new book, The Heartland: An American History, University of Illinois professor Kristin L. Hoganson tells the story of the region through its links to the rest of the world. Arguing that the Midwest, centered here on Illinois, has long been misunderstood as far more provincial and isolated than it actually is, Hoganson lays out the ways in which international relationships have shaped the economy and identity of the region. She also examines part of the region’s complicated history with race, and the way some stories have been obscured in a way that has given everyone — outsiders and locals alike — a warped idea of who has a claim to the most all-American of places.

Hoganson spoke to Longreads from Champaign, a small city in southern Illinois just a few hours from the small town where I myself grew up, about what it means to reframe Midwestern history through an international lens, the role of empire in shaping the region, and what the Heartland Myth means in the 21st century.


Bridey Heing: Can you share a little about the origins of this book? You had moved to the Midwest from the coast — what were some of the notions you had about the Midwest and the idea of the Midwest prior to actually living there?

Kristin L. Hoganson: I come from a family with deep Midwestern roots, but I grew up mostly on the East Coast. I moved to central Illinois to take up a job at the University of Illinois, and I really didn’t know anything about the rural Midwest before I moved. When I arrived in town I turned on the radio while I was unpacking and out came the weather forecast for Argentina, China, and Brazil, and I realized I had no idea where I had landed. I wanted to figure out the backstory to my new home, and that planted the seed for the book.

I think a lot of people outside of the area, myself included before I moved there, have bought into the idea that the Midwest — and particularly the rural and small town Midwest — are more provincial than coastal cities, and that places on the coast but also borderlands are somehow more connected than the rural Midwest because of its buffered position in the center of the country. I assumed that all the things I had been reading on globalization really captured the [relationships between] the most connected places and the implicitly left behind places, and that the Midwest did not figure at all among the most connected places. So that radio story was the beginning of me realizing that all the geographies of globalization had overlooked something, and more specifically they had overlooked the place of rural people, and people in places like the Midwest, in the larger global context. That was the mystery I wanted to solve — how had a place I now understood to be connected come to be that way, in ways that I hadn’t realized?

What, to you, is the Heartland Myth? If you had to explain it to someone who had no sense of American identity, how would you do so?

The Heartland Myth holds up the small town and rural Midwest — the core of the United States — as the quintessential all-American place. People regard that myth differently. Some people really celebrate that mythical, all-American core of the country. They see if through the filmy gauze of nostalgia and they believe it is under siege, that the center of the country is really in peril. There are other people who say good riddance. They see the mythical heartland as a place that is small-minded, tends towards wall building, and its fundamentally exclusionary, and they are happy to see a change overtime. But love it or hate it Americans tend to regard the heartland in particular ways. They tend to see the rural Midwest as fundamentally local, insulated, and isolationist, and as ultimate national safe space because of its buffered position in the center of the country.

Many people on the coasts tend to regard the center of the country as flyover states or flyover country. And what that suggests is that they literally look down on the place. They are the ones looking out of the airplane window and they think there is nothing down there on the ground worth paying attention to. They write it off. It’s all about power.

For people who live in the places being flown over, we have our own sense of where we belong in the world, and it’s a sense in which our own lives are central. Midwesterners haven’t regarded themselves as being in flyover country so much as they’ve seen themselves as being in the center of everything.

I was unpacking and out came the weather forecast for Argentina, China, and Brazil, and I realized I had no idea where I had landed.

You mention in the introduction that there was a lot you had to leave out.

I had way too much material to include it all in the book. Before each chapter, there is a little bit of text called archival traces that are basically about the leads I could not follow. I included these leads to indicate how much more there was out there, and hopefully to make it clear that my book is not definitive. I could have written it up any number of ways. I could have found different stories or traced different stories, and it would have been a very different book in the details but the overall gist of the book would have been the same. I start with local history, and I follow the threads that stitch locality to much wider histories. That story is so complicated that no single book could capture it all.

I think what the book does overall is suggest a sense of place that is not defined by rigid borders. The different stories determine where the borders are, where the extent of place peters out.

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Much of the early part of the book is given over to exploring the international roots of Midwestern agriculture. What does it mean, in terms of what the Midwest truly is historically and today, that such a key industry that plays such a large role in shaping how we see the region is actually deeply tied to the international community?

For different audiences, it may mean different things. There are many people in the United States who have no idea how globally-minded agricultural producers have been. They don’t know how important the search for export markets has been historically, and the other forms of connections that have stitched rural places to wider fabrics. I’m thinking of things like immigration streams, military service, missionary efforts. For people who are familiar with the desire for things like export markets, some of what I write about will be familiar.

But even for the people who live in the rural Midwest, I think there are many parts of their own history that have been lost or forgotten or are not present in textbooks that my book addresses, so in that sense it’s revelatory to readers in places such as the rural Midwest as well as outside readers. The book tells tales that historians have not focused on.

I knew nothing about a lot of these international connections, even though I grew up in the area. Even with narratives about, for example, migrant farm workers — I’ve heard a little about them through word-of-mouth, and yet I don’t think of the Midwest or specifically Illinois when I think about that kind of movement of peoples and labor.

One thing that really blew me away was that some migrant farm workers who were coming from Mexico to the rural Midwest had ancestors from the rural Midwest who were forced out in the early 20th century. So in that sense, people who are sometimes denounced in political discourse as alien others who should be walled out of the United States are actually struggling for a right of return.

Along with those international connections, your book also teases out the region’s relationship to empire.

One of the things that jumps out for the time period I write about — the long 19th century — you can’t write about connections across borders in that period without looking at empire. It was a time dominated by European empires, with upstart empires outside of Europe — including the United States and Japan — participating in global networks that were characterized by hierarchies of power. [This becomes] very visible when you’re tracking things like animal imports. The example that makes that quite clear is that of the Berkshire hog. It was very popular in the late 19th century, and came to the United States from Britain. But the genetic material the British farmers used to develop this incredible pork producer was carried to Britain on shipping routes of the British empire, and ultimately many of the pork products made from this animal ended up advancing British colonialism in places like Australia and New Zealand or by feeding the British military. So from the production and the consumption side of the story, empire features prominently

Another story is the long history of international students at land grant colleges. I was surprised to find that an early dean of the agricultural school at the University of Illinois, Eugene Davenport, had served in Brazil trying to develop an agricultural college. Then when that post wound down he returned to the United States via Britain, where he felt like he was at the edge of an imperial system. When he became the dean of the agricultural school, he recruited students from around the world to study there. Some of those students came from places in the global south — from Mexico, from China, from India, from the Philippines. Those students connected with one another and they exchanged ideas of their struggle for national liberation, making the school a hotbed of anti-colonialist activism at the very beginning of the 20th century.

Some migrant farm workers who were coming from Mexico to the rural Midwest had ancestors from the rural Midwest who were forced out in the early 20th century.

Those links between empire and agriculture that you explore also speak to the relationship between the Midwest and white supremacy, which is a more complex history than many might realize. You write primarily about how white supremacy came to bear on the Kickapoos; when we look at the treatment of the Kickapoos, how does that history reflect or speak to the larger history and influence of white supremacy in the region?

To go back to the idea of national mythologies, one component of the Heartland Myth is that the rural American heartland is a particularly white part of the country, and I think part of the appeal of sentimental references to the heartland is that it is a white nationalist safe space. So one of the things I try to do in the book is explore the histories of colonialism that lay behind the making of a very white rural Midwest and the harm done not only through 19th century colonialism but the ongoing cost of those histories to the descendants of the people who were originally harmed.

I also explore the role of race-making in the Midwest among rural people, and the way I get at that is in large part through stories about animals. The most surprising thing that I found in that respect is how farmers understood their animals through racialized terms. They understood the Berkshire pigs as Anglo-Saxon pigs, and their purebred cattle as Northern European aristocratic animals with pedigreed lines that could be documented through the generations. Farmers who were importing cattle from places such as Ontario and directly from Britain understood those very expensive pure-blooded animals as Northern European animals. Those same farmers, when they imported animals from the Southwest including mexico and Indian Territory, understood those animals completely differently. They were cheap, they were often castrated steers, they were destined for the shambles rather than for breeding purposes. They understood long horned cattle as the descendants of animals that had been brought to Mexico at the time of Cortez and they thought they had North African ancestors that had been imported into Spain. The farmers say these cattle as essentially savage African animals, that instead of improving over the generations had further degenerated during their time in Mexico. They saw them as racially inferior. The ideas about the animals connected to ideas about people. Northern animals fit with conceptions of how they viewed Northern Europeans, and the Southern animals underlined racist and derogatory conceptions they were beginning to develop, particularly towards Mexico.

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The time frame you look at cuts off as we enter the 20th century. But of course the myth of the heartland is very much alive today and in some ways has been weaponized.

I think a lot of the red/blue division stems from a lack of understanding and empathy. My book counters the tendency on the part of people in big cities and coastal areas to either ignore or even to pathologize the rural Midwest by showing just how wrong some of the stereotypes of rural provincialism really are.

But the bridging goes both ways. Many Midwesterners have been cut off from the full sweep of their own past. One of the goals of my book is to take a different approach to local history, because I think local history written in a particular vein is a main reason why Midwesterns have been cut off from their own past and in some cases have seen themselves as pitted against people in other parts of the country. The whole point of the book is to argue against tightly bounded sense of belonging, to draw attention to connections across space and time. In that respect it counters impulses to draw a line between us and them.

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Bridey Heing is a writer focusing on world literature and culture. She is an editorial adviser at The London Magazine and a contributing editor at World Literature Today. She has written for web and print publications in the US and the UK, including The Washington PostPacific StandardThe Daily BeastThe EconomistThe Times Literary Supplement, and Bust.

Editor: Dana Snitzky