Tupper: Stuck without an identity in flyover country
I’ve always cringed whenever somebody labels me a Midwesterner.
My aversion to derogatory labels isn’t the only reason I’ve shunned Midwestern status. I also consider the label geographically inaccurate, or at least questionable.
I grew up mostly in Kimball, S.D. It’s a small town about 50 miles east of the 100th meridian, the line of longitude typically described as the beginning of the West. Technically speaking, I grew up on the Midwestern side of the line. But being in such close proximity to it made me feel more connected to Western places like Rapid City, S.D., than Midwestern places like Cleveland, Ohio.
So I’ve always figured there’s a grace area of about 50 miles, and I sort of annexed myself into the West.
Who wouldn’t want to be a Westerner? It’s the land of discovery, the frontier, cowboys and Indians, and majestic mountains, buttes and plains. As a kid and even an adult, identifying myself with all of that has sounded far cooler than being a flatlander from corn country.
But there is still that technicality. I didn’t really grow up in, nor do I live in, the true West. So where exactly am I if not the West or the Midwest? The Great Plains? The Northern Plains? The High Plains?
It’s all very confusing. Unlike people who readily identify as Southerners or New Englanders or Westerners or other kinds of -ers, I don’t have a regional identity. People from other regions of the country have accents, food preferences and even personalities and mannerisms specific to their home area. We don’t have such identifiable traits here in the land between the West and Midwest — a place perhaps best described, though not popularly so, by the late author Hamlin Garland as the “Middle Border.”
Evidence of our split Midwestern/Western personality is clearly visible in Mitchell, S.D., a city where two of the biggest annual events are the Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo (a celebration of Western heritage) and the Dakotafest farm show (an outgrowth of our location at the periphery of the Midwest Corn Belt).
Partly because of our vague regional boundaries and our lack of a regional identity, we also lack scholars devoted to studying our region’s history. That’s according to Sioux Falls, S.D., historian and author Jon Lauck, who additionally serves as an adviser to Sen. John Thune. Lauck has written a new book titled “The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History.”
Even Lauck struggles to set clear boundaries for the Midwest. He acknowledges that the traditionally accepted definition encompasses 12 states: Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.
“For the purposes of this book and in order to provide added coherence,” he wrote, “I focus on the prairie Midwest, as opposed to the areas of the Midwest more connected with the forests and heavy industry around the Great Lakes.”
That’s not much help to me and my identity crisis, but it’s a start.
Whatever the proper boundary, Lauck argues that the study of Midwestern history is important. It was here that the American experiment in democracy and republicanism was tested and bolstered by westward expansion, he claims. He also credits the soldiers and economic might of the Midwest with helping the North win the Civil War. For those and other reasons, Lauck thinks it’s a shame that modern historians have ignored the region.
The consequences of being ignored by academia go deeper than a dearth of Midwest-focused books.
It’s probably no coincidence that the rural Midwest has been dealing for decades with “brain drain” — the migration of our best and brightest young people to other areas of the country. With no historical narrative or regional identity to anchor us and tell us who we are, it’s easier to drift away.
I hope Lauck’s effort succeeds, and that both the geographic boundaries and historical narrative of the Midwest grow clearer.
I’m not sure I’ll ever admit to being Midwestern, but maybe I’ll understand that side of myself a little better.
Tupper is publisher of The Daily Republic of Mitchell, S.D.