How can we define “the Midwest”? Is it a delimited geographic region? Does a Midwestern identity exist? What can region tell us that urban versus rural or state divides do not?
Thanks to a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Newberry has been exploring this question in an exhibit titled “What is the Midwest?” September 20 – December 31, 2019) and a series of programming on various topics.
The central theme of this work is that historical and contemporary perceptions of the Midwest as “the middle” simultaneously reflect and hide cultural realities, which are diverse and dynamic. The Midwest encompasses the many Indigenous peoples, past and present, who have inhabited and moved across the area for thousands of years. It has been continually transformed by migration and immigration: successive waves of people of European descent, leaving crowded Eastern cities or the old country; the Great Migration of African Americans from the South; the arrival of Latinos to build the region’s railroads, farms, and food processing industries; and a continuous stream of immigrants from elsewhere in the world: the Middle East, south and east Asia, Africa.
The Midwest’s iconic environment – lakes and rivers, prairies and plains, forests and dunes – has also long shaped its history and public perception of the area. Waterways present a starting point for a geographic conceptualization of the Midwest. From this angle, the Midwest region extends from the Missouri River east to the Ohio River, encompassing the upper Mississippi watershed and the Great Lakes area. These boundaries neatly exclude the far West and the deep South, each of which has been shaped by different climates, economies, and politics. Although the Midwest’s waterways connect it to neighboring regions in important ways, the environmental distinctiveness and sensitivity of the interior watershed helps explain the often-contested growth of its human population and economy. Many of these broad political and economic patterns may be seen as evolving networks of people, infrastructures, resources, and goods.
On October 5, the Newberry hosted an Opening Symposium on “What is the Midwest?”, featuring a roundtable of four scholars of the region from distinct fields and disciplines: Toby Higbie, Professor of History and Associate Director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Los Angeles; Jon K. Lauck, founding president of the Midwestern History Association; Erik S. McDuffie, Associate Professor in the Department of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Jean M. O’Brien, Distinguished McKnight Professor of History at the University of Minnesota; and Sujey Vega, Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies and affiliate faculty member in the School of Transborder Studies and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. The roundtable was moderated by Liesl Olson, the Newberry’s Director of Chicago Studies.
Upcoming programs in the What is the Midwest Series include:
- Firelines: Midwestern Prairie Restoration, featuring photographer Jill Metcoff and ecologist Mike Mossman, December 3, 2019
- The Midwest as Place, featuring a conversation between historian Kristin Hoganson, author of The Heartland: an American History (2019) and historian Tim Gilfoyle, December 5, 2019