How I Lost My Way to the Heart of America

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Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

There are at least two ways to look at a concept like The Heartland. You could look at it as a search for meaning, in which uprooted, sometimes traumatized people, seek to understand their lives in relation to a place. It’s in this sense that the great Southern writer Carson McCullers talked about American homesickness.

With Americans, it is a national trait, as native to us as the roller-coaster or the jukebox. It is no simple longing for the home town or country of our birth. The emotion is Janus-faced: we are torn between a nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known.—Carson McCullers

Another way to look at The Heartland is as an obfuscating myth masking a willful denial of the machinery of empire even as America’s imperial ambitions proceed apace. This is The Heartland that Kristin L. Hoganson, history professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, calls “bunk.” (xvii) Her new book, The Heartland: An American History, is an effort to “debunk” the mythology that identifies the U.S. Midwest, (“The most American part of America,” according an 1891 British traveler (xiv)), as “Local. Insulated. Exceptionalist. Isolationist. Provincial. The ultimate safe space.” (xii)

Hoganson has collected an impressive array of stories to buttress her case. Though she bases her exploration on her current home county of Champaign, Illinois, Hoganson takes us to Canadian cattle farms, British hog breeder conventions, Brazil, Europe, India, and northern Mexico, among other places. The intent is to show how the static pictures of enduring, unchanging American landscapes portrayed in local histories have never been true. Champaign has always been globally connected.

Hoganson has a problem in presentation, however. How to tell this larger story in enough detail without losing sight of the particular place she begins? In this, she is hardly successful. Her enthusiasms for the intricate stories she wants to tell take her down too many avenues that are founded on concepts too abstract. One chapter uses airspace as an organizing principle and manages to cobble together telegraph wires, meteorology, barnstormers, military air fields, and economic ornithology! Any message is lost is the mix.

A more clear and powerful story is that of the Kickapoo, the native people displaced by the arrival of white pioneers to central Illinois. Hoganson uses their story as a frame for the book, noting that pioneers projected savagery onto the natives because of their mobility and lack of fixed attachment to a particular place. This despite the fact that the pioneers themselves were defined by their mobility and had to create a notion of what was ‘local.’

The Kickapoo are coopted, decultured, displaced, and removed through the course of the book. The book closes with a last tribal remnant living under the international bridge at Eagle Pass, Texas—the first residents of the land now undocumented in their own home.

Since Heartlands, this website, has been about a more McCullers-esque search for America, it’s good to have that tempered by Hoganson’s warnings. If we create the America of our dreams, are we really seeing America?

Despite the assumption that the heartland myth can tell us something about who Americans are, fundamentally, as a people, the answers it provides are more the glib commonplaces of Valentine silhouettes than the real, bloody, beating thing. (299)

Hoganson’s book doesn’t so much give us “the real thing” as deconstruct the Heartland into invisibility. There are so many crossing streams in her book that any through line is difficult to perceive. 

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Kristin Hoganson

I have given this site a plural name – “Heartlands” – to recognize that we are many here in the rural areas of America and we will tell many stories of who we are. But the spiritual longing for home does not have to ignore connections nor descend into the saccharine. Maybe the quest for The Heartland is “the real, bloody, beating thing.”

Full Disclosure: Penguin Press provided me with a review copy in exchange for an honest review.

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