Dismantling the Myth of ‘The Heartland’

In the end, Hoganson is not overturning the heartland myth to demonstrate that Midwesterners are cultivated citizens of the world, but rather to prove that they are, and always have been, “agents of empire.” Her book follows in the footsteps of the historian William Appleman Williams, who made a similar case in the 1960s, and shares a bloodline with older cultural artifacts (Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street,” Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown studies) that pulled up the skirts of small-town America to prove it was not an innocent idyll, but a backwater of greed, consumerism and blinkered moralism. Although Hoganson’s history does not proceed much beyond World War I, it seems in conversation with our contemporary moment (there are many sly allusions to building, or desiring, “walls”). One cannot help feeling, when reading it, that it is designed to implicate the region, historically, in the dirty work of globalization at a moment when many of its residents are conflicted about the costs and benefits of such arrangements.

This argument becomes most explicit, and somewhat precarious, in the conclusion, when Hoganson insists that the heartland myth continues to shape political thought today. She expresses frustration that people persist in seeing the Midwest as a place of “fixity instead of flux, insularity instead of interdependence” and cautions against choosing the “pabulum of nostalgia” over the reality of global interconnectedness. But who in 2019 remains in denial? Surely not Midwesterners themselves — not the Gary, Ind., steelworker whose job was exported overseas, nor the Detroit family displaced from their neighborhood by multinational investors. Even the recent resurgence of isolationism and protectionism is more about fear of “flux” and global “interdependence” than a disavowal of these trends. Of course, contending with this fact would require an account of the more disruptive economic shifts that began in the 1970s. It would also have to include industrial, majority-nonwhite cities like Detroit, Flint and St. Louis that have experienced the brunt end of these trends. It would require, in other words, moving out of the mythical realm of the heartland and into the actual Midwest.

It’s unclear whether a national readership has any interest in this reality, or whether its constituents are content to beat straw men to death. The heartland myth is often portrayed as a nostalgic fantasy of the right, but it is equally sustained by a more liberal, urbane sector of the country that seems to derive an almost erotic pleasure in revisiting it, again and again, only to see it ritually falsified. Hoganson’s purpose is to undermine the myth from within, and yet like all such revisions, even the most progressive and well-meaning, it leaves intact the most pernicious core of the fiction: that the Midwest is synonymous with small-town America, and that by peering into any one of these hamlets one can glimpse the soul of the nation.

If the Midwest was once a place to indulge in fantasies of innocence and escapism, it is now regarded as the locus of our worst tendencies as a country, a dead zone to offshore national guilt. It is the place we turn to in our darkest hours, to discover what lies in our own hearts.

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