The Real Story of the Middle West

By Homan, Casey P. | Monthly Labor Review, April 2012 | Go to article overview

The Real Story of the Middle West


Homan, Casey P., Monthly Labor Review


Remaking the Heartland: Middle America since the 1950s. By Robert Wuthnow, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2011, 358 pp., $35/ hardback

Sociologist Robert Wuthnow used to subscribe to the view of the American Middle West (referred to as Middle America in the book's title) as a region in long-term decline, and he decided to write a book explaining the decline as evidenced by ghost towns, reports of joblessness, and other signs of decreasing vitality. But after doing a great deal of research, he realized that the true story of the Middle West, or heartland, from the 1950s to the present was considerably different from the conventional story that he had accepted. With an overall approach that "treads the line between history and social science," Wuthnow argues that, rather than declining, the Middle West has been remade in a way consistent both with its traditional values and with modern changes in society and technology. Pain tends to accompany any large transformation, and the transformation of the heartland is no exception to that tendency: the region certainly has experienced its share of economic pain. And it is sometimes stereotyped as culturally backward. But Wuthnow asserts that, on the whole, the region is both economically and culturally vibrant.

In Remaking the Heartland, the Middle West is defined as the traditional U.S. Census Bureau West North Central Division states of Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, and South Dakota, together with Arkansas and Oklahoma. To research this region, Wuthnow chose to use multiple methods. He analyzed statistical data from sources such as the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics; studied media reports, books, and other documents; and, with the help of research assistants, conducted in-depth interviews with people who live in or grew up in the heartland. Wuthnow's use of mixed methods is easily justified: it is hard to imagine one method being sufficient to tell the full story of the transformation of an entire region of the country.

The Middle West used to be a region known for small towns, a strong dependence on agriculture, and little ethnic diversity. Small towns are still a very important part of the Middle West, but there are now a greater number of large cities and suburbs, a more advanced agriculture industry, many new industries, more overall economic prosperity, and increased ethnic diversity. What brought about the transformation of the Middle West? Wuthnow contends that the change was not imposed from the outside but instead came from within the heartland--certainly a believable contention given that history has shown that positive changes are far less likely to last when they are imposed from outside. Still, part of the story of the Middle West's transformation is its increasing economic links with other parts of the United States and other countries as well. But in Wuthnow's opinion, the primary source of the heartland's metamorphosis is the strength of the social institutions that were in place even before the 1950s. These institutions include "the market towns, the farmsteads, the one-room schools, the townships, the rural cooperatives, and the manufacturing centers that gave the region its identity."

Another source of strength in the Middle West is the ability of its people to adapt when faced with adverse circumstances. To understand the Middle West of the 1950s, it is of course necessary to look back further in time, and one of the best examples of adverse circumstances with long-lasting effects is the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Throughout the 1940s and even into the 1950s, times continued to be tough. There is a romantic view of the 1950s heartland as "prospering from good crops, with happy housewives preparing luscious meals on modern kitchen appliances," but Wuthnow notes that most families did not live in that way at the time. Many homes still did not have electricity or telephone service, for example. …

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