February 7, 2020


Five Books to Read Before Talking about the Midwest this Election Season

By: Jacob Bruggeman

In his classic 1949 study of Northeast Ohio’s Western Reserve, Harlan Hatcher described the region on Lake Erie’s southern shore as a land of “arresting contrasts.” The same phrase can be easily applied to the American Midwest, typically understood as the twelve states in the north-central section of the country: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. (However, many individuals living outside of these states often think they live in the Midwest.)

And the Midwest is a land of interesting contrasts—contrasts reflected in its the region’s complex mix of agricultural, manufacturing, and tech industries; in the interplay among its small towns, mid-sized cities, mega-metropoles; in its painful history of original settlement and, nevertheless, hopeful standing as a home to many diverse communities. Put differently, the Midwest is not simply Main Streets and cornfields. Fortunately, there is an abundance of new books on the Midwest that work to dispel these stereotypes. 

Admittedly, this is an idiosyncratic list, one that reveals my own interests as an advocate of the region’s literature and student of its history. The books in this list will not expose the causes of Iowa’s catastrophic caucuses, and they certainly cannot predict the currents of the region’s electorate. Individually, however, these books accomplish something far more enduring and important—they demonstrate the region’s complexity. But the Midwest is itself a land of idiosyncrasies, quirks, and unique histories that contradict popular perceptions of it as a hackneyed and hollowed-out flyover country housing only hayseeds and hillbillies. 

Kristin L. Hoganson | The Heartland: An American History | Penguin Press | 2019 | 432 Pages

In her latest book, historian Kristin Hoganson grapples with one of the most powerful myths in America’s popular imagination: the heartland myth. The Midwest has long been identified as the site of America’s heart and soul. Presidents like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln extolled the virtues of the region’s virgin lands and the resources such territories could provide, and many present-day cultural commentators still associate “Americanness” with the Midwest. 

Hoganson, however, focuses specifically on the heartland myth’s creation and evolution in the post-WWII period—and those excluded by it. Readers will walk away from this book with a better understanding of the gaps between popular images and Midwestern realities.  

Chris Arnade | Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America | Sentinel | 2019 | 304 Pages

Arnade’s book is a beautiful and heartbreaking compendium of the stories and faces of the poorest of America’s poor, those living on the county’s extreme economic periphery. Dignity is told through Arnade’s various encounters with these individuals at places like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, and while the book features Brooklyn, Selma, and other communities alongside those of the Midwest, it is nevertheless helpful in dismantling stereotypes about the region’s poor. 

Meghan O’Gieblyn | Interior States: Essays | Anchor | 2018 | 250 Pages

O’Gieblyn grew up a fundamentalist evangelical in the Midwest. Now an acclaimed author and columnist at au courant publications like The Paris Review of Books, O’Gieblyn would seem to have evolved out of the Midwest. Interior States, however, is a meditation on the slow persistence and messiness of midwestern identity. Through grappling with her identity on the written page, O’Gieblyn captures something of the region’s cornfield-defying complexity. 

Elizabeth Catte | What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia | Belt Publishing | 2018 | 146 Pages

I know, I know—one could quibble that Appalachia is not the Midwest. But the stereotypes that afflict both regions are almost one and the same. Catte’s incisive new book tackles one particular pervasive stereotype about Appalachia and the Midwest: that these regions are unanimously conservative and white. In so doing, she takes on successful authors like J.D. Vance, whose bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, Catte claims, perpetuated the same “cheap stereotypes.” Catte’s book does the good work of dismantling this stereotype. 

Jon K. Lauck | The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History | University of Iowa Press | 2013 | 180 Pages

Lauck’s volume, while several years older than the rest in this list, is nevertheless important in resituating the Midwest’s history within the broader history of the country. The Lost Region spends quite some time hashing out historiographical debates about the region, but readers will, all the same, find the book’s breadth interesting.