Navigating the disconnect between the history and myth of America's "heartland," or Midwest, a history professor tracks both the backstory of this region and the evolution of the idea of an unalloyed heart at the center of the United States, exploring the region's relationship to identity and community, immigration and trade, security and global power, and food.
While the borders of the region may seem a bit fuzzy, Ms. Hoganson delineates the myth of the heartland ... But, as with many of our most cherished fables, the real story is more complex, and Ms. Hoganson lays it out in fascinating and convincing detail ... Ms. Hoganson’s book will surely appeal to her fellow scholars. For one thing, she stitches together insights from a slew of fields that are rarely in dialogue, including environmental and settler colonial history, as well as the study of borderlands and U.S. foreign policy, the last of which is her particular area of expertise, established by two previous books on the global roots of American consumerism and the Spanish-American War. For another, more than merely recovering the connections that have always bound the heartland to the rest of the world, Ms. Hoganson demonstrates that these linkages—seen and unseen—were essential to the growth of an incipient American empire. Lay people, by contrast, may be put off by the sprinkling of academic jargon or the digressions into works by other, less accessible historians. And while Ms. Hoganson is a marvelous writer, all but the most enthusiastic readers will skim impatiently over detailed passages about seeds, plants and weather, however important they are to her story. None of this is to detract from Ms. Hoganson’s considerable achievement.
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' ... 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 ... 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.
... confronts persistent views of the insular and benign Midwest and reinterpreting the heart of the American nation. Yet Hoganson’s book shows that local, national and global histories are more malleable and permeable than hard-and-fast categorizing allows, and that identity-based history does not necessarily undermine the national story. Rather, it keeps our history honest, free of simple nostalgias ... If [Hoganson] had continued her history of the Midwest past the early 20th century, she could have told the ongoing stories of dispossession and displacement for multiple peoples, classes and races.