A small notice in the New York Times this week alerts the reader to the news that, “The Midwest has long had cornfields, niceness and plenty of jokes about such by (ahem) coastal types. And now, it also has its own historical association.”
Full disclosure, I’m at least on the mailing list of this group, the brand-new Midwestern History Association, and am involved in a separate, but also brand-new, interdisciplinary journal, the Middle West Review. I am enthusiastic about these new ventures and the renewed energy about the region which they represent, and I greatly admire the hard work of Jon Lauck, the president of the new association. But I am also interested in the way that such new projects tend to make certain kinds of claims about their scholarly validity, their right to a place in the academic sun.
To be specific, I am curious about the way that scholars often sound aggrieved and peremptory when making the case for the significance of their work and interests, deploying the language of “neglect” and insisting that one’s subject needs to be taken “seriously.” Here are two quotes from the Times article:
“Unlike other regions, the Midwest hasn’t had a journal focused on its history until now,” Jon K. Lauck, a lawyer and historian in Sioux Falls and the group’s first president, said in an email. Mr. Lauck, the author of the recent book “The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History,” added, “We think it’s time for the Midwest to stand up for itself.”
Jon Butler, a retired Yale professor and board member of the new group who lives in Minneapolis, said that the region, with the exception of Chicago, was “as much the flyover zone in history as it is in public culture.” He added: “Or think of it another way: a book for every minor Puritan, Southern military man, and Western cowboy, while Hubert Humphrey gets a footnote.”
Butler’s keen wit (I once bought a used book in New Haven that had the inscription “Unwillingly owned by Jon Butler” on the flyleaf. The book: Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind) is fully on display here, but let’s pause for a moment. Is this true?
There was actually a small Humphrey vogue around the turn of the millennium (coordinating with Paul Wellstone’s political success, incidentally), with Robert Mann’s Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell, and the Struggle for Civil Rights (1996), Timothy Thurber’s The Politics of Equality: Hubert H. Humphrey and the African American Freedom Struggle (1999), and Jennifer Alice Delton’s Making Minnesota Liberal: Civil Rights and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (2002). There have been other random articles and book chapters about Humphrey since, but the most recent book of some importance is Todd S. Purdum’s An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I haven’t gotten a chance to take a look at it, but I’d wager that Humphrey gets more than a footnote.
And that is the point of this little bibliographic exercise: it cannot be said “seriously” that Humphrey is unstudied. If you want to research Humphrey, you’ve got the secondary sources to make a good start, especially in terms of Humphrey’s involvement in civil rights. Presidential losers tend not to be taken “seriously” in the sense that they often have jokes made about them, but as Robert pointed out earlier this week, there has been a lot of recent work done on Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, arguing persuasively that the movements behind their campaigns had huge and lasting influence on the US political landscape. On the other hand, we may not see a pathbreaking monograph on Michael Dukakis soon (see! Disdain can even happen to New Englanders!).
But the question I have is, would scholars really shun a historian who made a case for Dukakis’s significance or refuse to advise her dissertation or repeatedly patronize and try to redirect her efforts? Because that is what I think we should mean when we accuse the scholarly community of not taking our subject “seriously,” not that someone cracks a joke and then gives you an honest hearing.
I’m reminded here of a passage from Kathryn Lofton’s excellent book, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon—surely a project that led to a couple of waggish comments. Lofton writes,
I have become increasingly concerned that in our scholarly ambition to translate our subjects—to, as the phrasing often goes, take our subjects seriously—we have become sycophants to our subjects, reframing every act as an inevitably creative act. Within religious studies, this has meant a diminishment of studies attempting to explain broad themes in religious history out of a fear that to do so may violate the granular greatness of any subject’s contradictory expression. We have become so worried that we will contribute to the bigotry of caricature that we have become lost in pointillist profusions, dividing our material by decades, our sects by geography, and our rituals into practices.
Lofton is speaking to some disciplinarily specific issues—in my layman’s view, more of religious studies is still suffused with a post-Geertzian quandary of representation than is history—but the point is clearly applicable. The line about the “bigotry of caricature” is particularly keen, although here I am speaking more about a scholar’s fear that others will subject their topic to that bigotry rather that they themselves will inadvertently do so.
The language of “taking it seriously” preemptively imagines a scholarly community in which one has to fend off lampoons of ridicule before one can lay out one’s argument. The language of “neglect” conjures one’s fellow scholars as so cruelly selfish that they have purposely rerouted scholarly attention away from the subject you intend to pursue. We see a bit of this zero-sum thinking in the quote by Jon Lauck above: “We think it’s time for the Midwest to stand up for itself.” It’s time everyone else stopped bogarting the journal space, the grants, and the attention. The Midwest is going to grab some of it back.
The problem with both ways of imagining the academy is that there have been cases of real “neglect” and real efforts to block or remove the support for scholarship, to not take a project seriously as a way to prevent it from happening. Mostly those cases have been research on women, people of color, and sexual minorities. Not Hubert Humphrey.
The point is, there is a real danger to the conventional scholarly self-justification “No one has taken my subject seriously.” Saying that erases the distinction between what is often just a back-door and really rather paltry claim to originality (other scholars haven’t talked about this topic as much as I’m going to talk about it) and an actual history of conflict, of struggling to have one’s voice heard over the staunch objections of powerful people.
I think it’s great that there’s more work being done self-consciously under the banner of Midwestern history and Midwestern studies. But (and this is a topic for a different post), the history of why the Midwest is only now obtaining a historical association is not a question of not being taken seriously, when “taking it seriously” means something more than fending off a few preliminary jokes.