Kristin L. Hoganson Dismantles the Myth of ‘The Heartland’Historians in the News
tags: book reviews, American History, Midwest, Heartland
As a Midwesterner, I’ve always been baffled by the term “heartland.” Other parts of the country are not similarly personified — though it’s tempting to extend the analogy. (Is New York the brain? Las Vegas the groin?) Midwesterners, of course, never use the term. It is kept alive by people outside the region — op-ed writers, presidential candidates, whoever’s responsible for titling academic conference panels — all of whom persist in the strange belief that maps can be reduced to metaphor; that the geographic interior of the country can be read, symbolically, as a place where the center still holds.
“The heartland myth insists that there is a stone-solid core at the center of the nation,” writes Kristin L. Hoganson in her new book, “The Heartland: An American History.” “Local, insulated, exceptional, isolationist and provincial; the America of America First, the home of homeland security, the defining essence of the center of the land.” Hoganson, a history professor who spent most of her life on the East Coast, studying at Yale and teaching at Harvard, bought into this narrative until 1999, when she took a position at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
While Champaign is the kind of Corn Belt town that is often upheld as prototypically Middle America — predominantly white, Christian and Republican — Hoganson discovered it was far from a backwater: Her neighbors bought imported goods at the same big box stores that dotted the rest of the country; they ate produce from Mexico and Chile and kept in touch with family members who had migrated to coastal cities. These observations don’t seem to warrant the status of revelation, but Hoganson was thinking as a historian. Since the end of the Cold War, history had focused on how place is shaped by global relations; this trend, she realized, had left the Midwest behind. In an era of globalization, it was regarded as the last truly local place.
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