Writing about the Midwest presents a problem unknown to those who write about, say, the South or New England. The problem is that no one can define, with any precision, just what the Midwest is.
I made a stab at it in my book on the Midwest, Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism. I based my definition on what I could see and sense when I was doing my research. So I've been charmed, not to say gratified, to read a book that says that the Midwest exists as it is today because of the four great glaciers that rolled across the region, starting about a million years ago, and that this glacial expanse pretty much matches my impressionistic definition.
Geology, it seems, is destiny.
In my book, I defined the Midwest mostly as the eight states of the Upper Midwest -- Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. But I made a point of cutting across state lines when it seemed appropriate, if only to stress how little these artificial political boundaries have to do with the reality of Midwestern life.
Thus, I let the Midwest edge across the Missouri River to take in the eastern fringes of Nebraska and Kansas. More drastically, I lopped off the southern thirds of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois and consigned these regions to the South. I included only the half of Missouri north of the Missouri River, figuring that the southern half was more Ozark and Southern.
What was left was a cohesive region bound together by its economy, which is heavy industry and intensive farming, and its character, shaped by the first great migration of people from northern Europe and New England. The southern fringe, I reasoned, was a different region, harder and hillier, more given to small-scale farming, more shaped by its first settlers, who were the Scots-Irish from the Piedmont whose movement took them down the Ohio River and into the border states.
I also chopped the Midwest off at the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, reasoning that any states that touched the Atlantic Ocean, such as New York and Pennsylvania, couldn't be Midwestern.
Admittedly, this was less than scientific. I felt a place was Midwestern if it felt Midwestern. This wasn't perfect: I've received complaints from western Pennsylvania and upstate New York, arguing that their history and their problems are identical to those in the Midwest and they want to be part of this conversation. But folks in southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio haven't made a peep. My bet is that they don't feel Midwestern and don't mind being left out.
There are reasons for this, and these reasons go back more than a couple of hundred years. I learned this from a book called Portrait of the Midwest: From the Ice Age to the Industrial Era, written fifty years ago by a Chicago businessman and jack of all trades named Douglas Waitley. The book, now long out of print, was given to me by a friend who found it in a used book stall in Detroit. It's a prize.
What I discovered was that my definition of the Midwest -- that inclusion of that fringe across the Missouri, the exclusion of the area south of Interstate-70, the belated inclusion of upstate New York -- corresponds almost exactly to the furthest reach of the four great glaciers that descended and retreated over the region from a million years ago until barely 16,000 years ago.
As the glaciers advanced, they not only flattened the landscape into the great prairies we know today. They carried along a mass of debris, rocks, gravel, and grit that remained behind when they receded. This combined with the decomposed grass and leaves from earlier eras to create the rich black soil that is the basis for Midwestern agriculture.
The regions beyond the glaciers -- southern Illinois and Indiana, for instance -- didn't share this bounty of rich soil. Instead, they received the churning meltwater from the glaciers that carved the upland hills and deep valleys that remain today. (The same thing happened in the so-called Driftless Area, a small region in southwestern Wisconsin and northeastern Iowa that the glacier missed, leaving behind an area of great natural beauty but fewer natural resources and a legacy of relative poverty and underdevelopment similar to, say, southern Illinois.)
The Midwest politically is the result of two events 200 years ago -- the Northwest Ordinance of 1803, which created the Northwest Territory embracing what was to become Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota, and the Louisiana Purchase sixteen years later, from which the other Midwestern states were carved.
In a sense, this area had natural boundaries -- the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers bounded the Northwest Territory, while the Missouri and Red Rivers marked the western limits of Minnesota and Iowa. In fact, these natural boundaries don't amount to much, at least as compared to the mountains that give other regions a natural territory, not to mention the history that delineates the South.
For that reason, no one can say for sure where the Midwest begins and ends. Do the mining and forestry areas of northern Minnesota and Michigan really belong? Are the Great Plains Midwestern, or are they a separate region defined by a different climate and a different economy? Can parts of Ontario and Quebec, which share the Midwest's economy and proximity to the Great Lakes, be admitted to membership? Do Buffalo and Syracuse belong to the Chicago-centered Midwest, or to the New York City-centered East?
The Midwest Governors Association includes twelve states -- the eight states of the Upper Midwest and the four Great Plains states. Our Global Midwest Initiative includes the same twelve states, although almost all the interest we've generated has come from the Upper Midwest: it's easy to conclude that the Great Plains states don't really consider themselves Midwestern.
Joel Garreau, in his fascinating book, The Nine Nations of North America, split the area between what he called The Foundry, the industrial heartland embracing the Great Lakes from New York to Toronto to Chicago, and The Breadbasket, a vast agricultural area stretching from southern Texas well into Manitoba. Considering that the three industrial states of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa are consigned to The Breadbasket, this isn't entirely satisfying.
With all this confusion over the Midwest, it's no wonder that there's even less agreement on what constitutes The Heartland. This mushy concept can be used as a synonym for the Midwest, or for a down-home state of mind, or for a certain populist or conservative politics, or seemingly, for whatever the author has in mind, with no need for geographic precision.
A recent example is a new book, Remaking the Heartland: Middle America Since the 1950s, by a Princeton sociologist named Robert Wuthnow. A native of Kansas, Wuthnow refers to his territory as the Midwest, but has virtually nothing to say about the Midwest east of the Missouri River. Rather, he concentrates on the Plains states and, especially, Kansas, seeing the region's revival exemplified in the Kansas City suburb of Olathe, which is basically an overgrown office park that, in its soullessness, could be anywhere.
I understand that the Midwest Governors Association is about to launch a project on "rebranding the Midwest," presumably to give it a sharper image. A noble effort, to be sure, but perhaps a vain one, given the general confusion on just where the place even is.