The Heartland and the Myth of the “Real” America

In 1958, The Saturday Evening Post published a series called “The Changing Midwest” that attempted to document the transforming towns and cities of the “once-isolated midlands” of the U.S. In an interview with a banker from Rushville, Indiana, the Midwesterner puts it plainly: “The old days are gone.”

It’s a sentiment that has been expressed in various ways for decades, but at its heart lies a question: What exactly were the “old days”?

In her recent book The Heartland: An American History, Kristin L. Hoganson uncovers histories of the so-called “flyover states” that challenge prevailing conceptions that the center of the country could ever be reduced to a homogenous, provincial set of Americans. As a historian with a background in U.S. foreign relations history, Hoganson contends that “America’s heartland” is as misunderstood as it is steeped in complicated, multicultural history with global reach. Rather than hailing as the “once-isolated” lands of American mythology, Hoganson says the Midwest has played an important role in the story of globalization, and our failure to understand its checkered — sometimes unsettling — past is a detriment to our country’s future.

In our interview, Hoganson discusses her book, what we might be forgetting about the “old days,” and how American misunderstandings of the Midwest have brought us to our current political landscape.

The Saturday Evening Post: In your book, you focus a lot on this myth of the “heartland.” You write, “the more entrenched the myth became, the more natural it seemed. The more distant its origins, the easier it became to forget that it did not arise from solid historical and geographical analysis, but rather from the stuff of political need.” What is the myth of the heartland, and what “political need” did it arise from?

Kristin L. Hoganson: By the heartland myth, I mean the sense of the rural Midwest as a quintessentially all-American place: as local, insulated, and isolated; as the ultimate national safe space. This seems to make sense because of geography. The Midwest seems buffered from the rest of the world because of its position in the middle of the country. But the Midwest, like the rest of the United States, has never been walled in or off. There has never been a fixed essence that we can regard as a national heart. The political need that you mentioned is the nationalist desire for some kind of core, for a sense of who the American people are at heart. But of course, the heartland of myth doesn’t represent the nation as a whole. It overemphasizes the whiteness and insularity of the United States. The seemingly nationalist need that the heartland myth fulfills might better be understood as a white nationalist desire to separate insiders from outsiders; to make exclusionary claims about who and what count as fundamentally American. The heartland myth does a great injustice not only to the United States but also to the people it purports to depict, because it distorts their history and hides far more fascinating stories.

The origins of the term “heartland” are early 20th century. A British geographer, Sir Halford Mackinder, coined the word to refer to a locus of power. In opposition to naval theories that focused on the control of sea lanes as the key to geostrategy, he theorized that whoever controlled the Eurasian heartland would control the world. The term entered wide circulation in the United States during World War II in coverage of the fight for Europe. After 1945, the term continued to be used in reference to Eurasia, though with a focus on the Soviet threat. As the Cold War got colder, Americans began to apply the term to their own geographic center and capacity to wield power, as seen in references to the industrial heartland. Yet as the rise of long-range bombers and eventually intercontinental ballistic missiles fostered more anxieties about nuclear destruction, the term took on new meanings. In contrast to the hard-edged industrial heartland, which signified power, the soft-focus heartland came to signify Americana. This latter heartland became the heartland of myth: a repository for nostalgic yearnings, a place of innocence and national essence that had to be protected from outside threats at all cost.

SEP: How do you think that myth of the heartland aids politics today? Not necessarily Trump, but maybe any political program or politician that purports to understand the interests of Midwesterners.

Hoganson: The heartland myth lends itself to an exclusionary vein of nationalism by suggesting that there is a real America that is somehow threatened by the actual majority of the American people. The idea of the heartland as a buffered place also lends itself to the idea that the United States can achieve security by walling itself off from the rest of the world. And the idea of the heartland as a vulnerable place hides the role of the United States in forging the modern world and the tremendous global power it has exercised. My point is that there is no going back to the heartland of myth because it never existed in the first place. And to those who are attached to the myth, I’d say that the history I uncovered is actually far more interesting and epic.

In a time of talk about building walls, hypernationalism, that understanding of place is very relevant to those kinds of discussions. In terms of rhetoric, I think what my book argues against is a sense of victimization. I would refer specifically to Trump’s rallies, including in Ohio. I think, rhetorically, what is happening in some of those speeches is an effort to say, “The rest of the world has taken advantage of you.” That “we are victims of the rest of the world and we’re finally going to stand up to the rest of the world.” A major point of the book is to think of the impact of the rest of the world on places that may not have been considered to be points of encounter, such as the rural Midwest, but also to recognize that the rural Midwest has been a place of power. That it’s not just a story of victimization; it’s a story of colonialism and empire. The exercise of power, including in small, Midwestern towns, and the ways those residents have benefitted from global systems of power, and how they have been very active in advancing U.S. power.

In the book, one of the people I trace is William McKinley. Not President William McKinley, although he too comes from Canton, Ohio, small-town Midwest, and was the archimperialist of the turn of the 20th century. But the McKinley I trace was a congressman who made several around-the-world trips to the U.S. colonial outposts in the Philippines, he took Caribbean cruises where he visited the U.S. colonies in Puerto Rico and the base in Cuba, the Panama canal. He was an arch proponent of U.S. empire-building as well as an arch proponent of global governance at a time when the United States was the rising power on the world stage. It’s important for people to recognize the ways the United States has exercised power globally and to understand that contemporary feelings of victimization really distort the overall history of the Midwest in the world. Part of it is an urban story, but it’s also in less likely places, like the rural places I write about.

SEP: You write about reckoning with the past, and Americans and Midwesterners reckoning with their own past as something that hasn’t really happened. What do you think that would look like? Have we begun to in any way?

Hoganson: I think that’s what people are doing right now. That’s a lot of what this spring-summer 2020 moment in history is all about: asking hard questions about the nation. Why have we fallen so short of our principles and capacities and how can we achieve justice, equality, and inclusion? My book is part of this larger effort. It pushes us to go beyond misleading mythologies, however comforting they may be to some, to understand more boggling, disconcerting, and even deeply troubling aspects of U.S. history. We will never get to a better place without understanding where we’ve been all along.

I think the book does two things. It helps explain part of the country to the flyers-over who have, at least in recent years, looked down on the rural Midwest, in an effort to make that flattened sense of place more 3-D for those who have dismissed the rural communities at the center of the country. But I also wrote it for people who live in those communities who I think in many cases have not fully appreciated their own community histories. In part, I think that’s because in historical scholarship other parts of the country have gotten a lot more attention than the Midwest. It’s been considered by historians recently as an overlooked part of the country. We’re in the middle of a time of revival of interest in Midwestern studies and Midwestern history. So, I think for people who call this part of the country home, there has been a certain disconnect from their past because of the comparative dearth of scholarship. And the scholarship that has existed on the rural and small-town Midwest has tended to be inward-looking and focused on smaller-scale stories of daily life without as much attention to bigger narratives and issues of power.

SEP: How did researching the Midwest differ from some of the other topics you’ve written about?

Hoganson: I uncovered so many unexpected threads while I was researching the book that I could not possibly follow them all. It was really hard to let some of them go. I also wanted to signal that the stories I tell in my book are not the whole story – I unearthed countless intriguing leads that I could not pursue. So the “archival traces” that start each chapter are a way of pointing to paths not taken and leads not followed. They are also about the excitement of conducting historical research – of uncovering nuggets that raise more questions than they answer; that make you want to know more; that remind you how strange and unexpected the past can be and what an emotional wallop it can pack.

As for what made the research different than my previous books, I am a newcomer to agricultural history, so it was a revelation to learn about things like the application of phrenological principles to pigs and the racialization of cows and bees. Learning about economic ornithology – relying on birds for insect pest control prior to the development of synthetic pesticides – was also an eye-opener for me. So was the discovery that students from China, India, and the Philippines who had traveled to the United States to study agriculture made Midwestern land grant colleges hotbeds of anticolonial activism prior to World War I.

As all this suggests, I was staggered to discover how much evidence of global interconnection could be found in agricultural journals and reports. I also benefited tremendously from advances in digitization. The Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections – which are free to search, browse and download – contain millions of pages of searchable text that enabled me to track topics such as the UFO sightings that accompanied the rise of long-distance balloon competitions and support for global governance through the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

SEP: You wrote: “Since the beginning, the seeming locality of the Midwest has served colonialist politics, having originated in colonial denial.” Can you explain what colonialist politics you’re referring to? And what that colonial denial might be?

Hoganson: Locality did not exist in the Midwest until the pioneers – who had by definition come from someplace else – invented it. They did so in large part through the local histories they wrote, which established their place claims vis-à-vis the Native people they forcibly displaced. The idea of the rural Midwest as one of the last local places has hidden enmeshments in colonialism and empire. The history of the Kickapoo diaspora figures largely in the book as one example, but there are plenty of other examples, including histories of bioprospecting, military aviation in the barnstorming era, and piggybacking on the British Empire.

SEP: You moved to Champaign, Illinois from Boston to teach at University of Illinois. What was that experience like for you on a personal level?

Hoganson: I’m a sixth-generation Midwesterner, with family ties that go way back in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. But I grew up in exile, mostly on the East coast. Even though I used to visit relatives in the Midwest as a kid and my first full-time job was in Chicago, I have to confess that I bought into stereotypes about flyover country. You can imagine my surprise when I turned on the radio upon moving to Champaign and got the weather forecasts for China, Argentina, and Brazil. I realized I had no idea where I’d landed. The book came from the disjuncture between my expectations and what I discovered upon arrival. I realized that all the books I’d been reading on globalization assumed that there were particular places of connection, and the corn belt was not one of them. Moving to Champaign made assumptions about urban globality and rural provincialism visible to me in ways that they hadn’t been when I was teaching in Boston.

SEP: The first chapter is about the Kickapoo people, who were removed from Illinois in the nineteenth century. So, how was the experience of researching the history of a largely erased group of people?

Hoganson: As a relative newcomer to Native American history, I was astounded to learn about the vast geographies traversed by the Kickapoo people in the nineteenth century. These stretched from the present-day Detroit-Windsor area, a historic homeland of the Kickapoo Nation, to the straits of Mackinaw, present-day Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, upstate New York, Washington D.C., Florida, Texas, Arizona, Kansas, and Oklahoma. People with Kickapoo names were performing on the streets of London in the 1850s as part of a traveling show.

Some Kickapoos moved to Coahuila, Mexico in the nineteenth century for respite from the pervasive anti-Indian violence they encountered in the United States, for a place of their own, and for the ability to move freely across space. One of the accounts that most moved me in the course of my research is that of Kickapoo people who lived under the international bridge between Eagle Pass, Texas and Piedras Negras Mexico, literally on the U.S.-Mexican border, before their U.S. citizenship rights were acknowledged in the 1980s. Their experiences may seem out of place in an account of the U.S. heartland, but Kickapoos have been heartlanders since before that term existed. Their claims to place precede the borders that have walled Indigenous people in and out.

Featured image: Farmer Raymond Coin at his 240-acre farm near Bemidji, Minnesota (Photo by Bill Shrout, March 18, 1961, issue of The Saturday Evening Post, ©SEPS)