2: James Shortridge’s The Middle West

Shortridge is a geographer with a fascination for cultural history, and the whole point of this book is to figure out where, exactly, the Midwest is, and what it means in American culture. The basic argument is that the Midwest and the popular conception of it have changed over time, but that the Midwest – particularly in its rural, yeoman farmer incarnation – is inextricably linked to American identity as a whole, so changes in the Midwest reflect changes in American culture more generally.  It’s not exactly the most controversial of books (unless, I guess, you live in Michigan and have strong ties to your identity as a Midwesterner?) but it does use a pretty innovative combination of sources and methods.  Also, I don’t know what the average computer was capable of in the late 1970s/ early 1980s, but he does an impressive amount of data crunching from handwritten sources and generates some cool maps as a result.

While he does do some surprisingly interesting stuff with old magazines, journals, and novels, the parts I like most about this book (surprise, surprise) are the maps.

One of the things he argues is that the image of the Midwest as a rural, prosperous, agricultural place has been so important in American culture that the physical location of the Midwest in the popular imagination has migrated as a result.  The cool thing is that he has the data to prove it.

Here, he reproduces a map created by a gentlemen who, in 1958, asked 450 postmasters whether their community was in the Midwest or not.

 Sorry for my crappy Hipstamatic photography, but the black dots in the shaded region are postmasters who said they were in the Midwest, and the open circles are postmasters who said they were not in the Midwest.  In 1958, the epicenter of the Midwest was in Chicago, and the Midwest itself mostly still covered the traditional 12 Midwestern states: Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois. Also, he doesn’t talk about this, but the postmasters look like they’re along rail (or maybe water?) lines radiating out from Chicago, which might have something to do with the configuration of the region both physically and in their imaginations.

Fast forward to 1980.  Shortridge is ok with using pop lit to gauge past attitudes, but I think he thinks that where the present is concerned, there’s no sense in mucking around with cultural productions when you can just ask people what they think.  So he does.  In 1980, he has friends in 32 states survey more than 2,000 undergrads on their opinions of the Midwest.  He asks his respondents to do two things: first, to write down all the traits they consider to be quintessentially Midwestern; and second, to circle the Midwest on a map.

In response to the first question, students from both inside and outside the traditional 12 Midwestern states all write pretty much the same thing: Midwesterners are hardy, honest, friendly, hardworking farmers who live in flat places with cold winters and hot summers.  In response to the second, they draw a wide variety of maps, but when he puts all of their responses together, the composite map looks like this:

Apparently, sometime between 1958 and 1980, the Midwest migrated down from the heavily industrialized Great Lakes to one of the last bastions of prosperous agriculture in the states – Kansas and Nebraska.  Shortridge theorizes that this movement shows just how badly Americans need the Midwest to be a rural heartland – rather than update our popular conception of the pastoral Midwest to include the industrialization in, say, Chicago and Detroit, we would rather just move it down to rural Kansas and pretend Chicago and Detroit don’t exist.

This is all very strange, and very contingent on Americans being a coherent unit undivided by pesky things like race, gender, and class.  It does, however, have a certain resonance with Michael Pollen’s “supermarket pastoral,” and with the nostalgia embedded in things like the current farm-to-market movement.  Who knows – maybe American culture, or at least part of it, does still need to believe we come from a nation of yeoman farmers.

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