The Meaning of Midwest

It’s partly a matter of geography and partly a state of mind, so mapping out what constitutes our region is no easy matter. No wonder some Michiganians have an identity crisis


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Pinpointing Michigan in the American Midwest is like winding a cheap watch. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

As it turns out, “Midwest” meanders through history as a vague notion debated by scholars and demographers. The U.S. Census Bureau didn’t adopt the term until 1984. And overall, “Midwest” can be as much a state of mind as a geographic location.

If Michigan has a Midwest identity crisis, it’s because the state fits snugly into a number of other areas, not the least of which is Rust Belt.

“The Midwest is essentially a cultural construct, to use a fancy word,” says Andrew Cayton, distinguished professor of history at Miami University in Ohio. “It is what people think it is. Like a lot of identities, it is what you want to call it.”

Cayton ought to know. He and two other scholars edited The American Midwest, a 1,890-page encyclopedia of U.S. life across the northern latitudes between Pennsylvania and Wyoming.

Researchers discovered that Michigan and Ohio were among the last states to embrace the notion of Midwest. And both states are reported to be “uncomfortably labeled” as such.

“We decided to present as much information about this area we called the Midwest as we could,” Cayton says. “Let the fighting begin whether or not Missouri and Michigan should be in the same region.”

There’s no sure answer, partly because migration has made the notion of Midwest a moving target.

Michigan used to be part of the American Northwest, as in the Northwest Territory of George Washington’s day. But as wanderlust pushed settlers toward the Pacific Ocean, Michigan was no longer “West.” But it wasn’t exactly “East” or “South,” either.

In 1910, the U.S. Census decreed Michigan to be part of the U.S. North Central Region, placing it more north than west. Then, in 1984, the Bureau hung a “Midwest” sign on 12 states, including Michigan. Technically, Michigan resides in the East North Central Division of the Midwest Region.

Bottom line: The federal government, in its infinite wisdom, has deployed five terms to describe Michigan: Midwest, Northwest, East, North, and Central. Take your pick.

“I would put Minnesota and Wisconsin and Michigan into a particular part of the Midwest that I would call the Upper Midwest,” says Deborah Miller of the Minnesota Historical Society. “They’re also part of a different region that you might call the Great Lakes states, along with their Canadian contemporaries.”

“I think the border is a very important part of the northern edge of things,” adds Miller, who helped edit Cayton’s massive American Midwest encyclopedia.

“An incredible amount of settlement came to the northern-tier states from Canada. There are long connections to Canada and the particular provinces.”

So what exactly is Midwest?

“I was in Illinois giving a talk and asked somebody that question, and we had a conversation for over an hour,” Miller says. “It’s a question people don’t think much about. But if you ask it with the right group of people, you get a pretty good argument.”

Paul W. Smith, morning host on WJR-AM in Detroit, has no doubt Michigan is part of the Midwest. “I’ve never thought of myself as anything but a Midwesterner,” he says. “I was born and raised in Monroe. When I think of Johnny Carson, David Letterman, I say they have good Midwestern values, the kind of values we have here in Michigan. Smith defines a Midwesterner as “down-to-earth and straightforward.”

Any Michiganian with a Midwest identity crisis can blame the region’s success. For about 100 years after the Civil War, the area now dubbed Midwest was identified as America itself, not a region of the country.

Explains Cayton: “Up until the last 30 or 40 years, the Midwest was not a peripheral part of the United States. What we call the Midwest — from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century — truly was the heartland of the United States. It was also the political and economic powerhouse of the United States.

“Region as an identity tends to coalesce in places where people feel alienated or cut off — the South being the classic example. “The fact that the term Midwest came so late to general usage goes to the point that nobody thought it was a particularly distinctive place,” Cayton says. “It’s not meant to be insulting. It’s meant to say, ‘This is America here.’ The South is not really quite America. New England is this old 18th-century place. And the West is way the heck out there. So this is the American heartland. People did not use the term Midwest in a widespread way until they began to think of the Midwest as being peculiar or out of the mainstream.”

That is, the population and political power is shifting to the Sunbelt and to the West, and the Midwest may feel compelled to define itself in more detail, the theory goes.

“If somebody asked me, ‘What do you think of Michigan,’ I would be more inclined to throw it in the Northeast,” says Mike Bernacchi, professor of marketing at University of Detroit Mercy.

“I’m not a native Michigander. It is in the Northeast,” he says.

But given that, Bernacchi sees how Michigan can have picked up a Midwest tag, especially given the state’s blue-collar history.

“When you say ‘Northeast,’ the ambience of it is definitely not blue-collar … blue-collar seems to fit Midwestern thinking.

“Eastern elitists (I use that term advisedly, small ‘e’) and their West Coast contemporaries are off doing their thing. So, then, what is the Midwest?

Hard-working, blue-collar, ethical. Some of it is defensive to separate ourselves from East Coast-ness and West Coast-ness, Southern-ness. Here, we are the solid people of America,” Bernacchi says.

“It’s something we can sell, something that we can accept, something that we can distinguish ourselves with, absolutely. In those pieces it’s all good and helps forge our identity, not having much to do with geography.”

Cayton says sorting out boundaries generates scholarly debates on regional identity. “In the South, people identify themselves as Southerners,” he says. “In the Midwest, many people tend to think very much in local terms. They’re from a state, or they’re from Chicago, Detroit, or whatever it might be. ‘Midwestern’ often shows up as an adjective but not as a primary component of their identity.

“You can imagine academics,” he quips. “We had this long discussion about Mark Twain. Is Mark Twain a Southern writer? Is Mark Twain a Midwestern writer? That’s an open question.

“Hemingway, with his Michigan connections, is an American writer. Fitzgerald, from Minnesota, is an American writer, while Tennessee Williams is a Southern writer.”

The census is equally baffling. It puts Twain’s home state of Missouri in the Midwest. But Kentucky is classified as Southern, even though it shares latitudes with Missouri.

Michigan’s green forests and blue waters look more like Kentucky than, say, Nebraska, a Midwest state that was once known as the Great American Desert.
Michigan’s manufacturing base contrasts sharply with Midwestern sister states like North Dakota, known for spring wheat and the movie Fargo. But industrial Michigan does have plenty in common with the manufacturing regions of New York and Pennsylvania, neither of which is considered Midwestern.
Michigan’s strong ties to the East include a shared time zone with established business and finance connections. And the influx of workers to auto plants gives Michigan a Southern flavor that’s alien to, say, South Dakota.

Demographer Kurt Metzger sees plenty of differences between Michigan and the more western states. “I don’t see Nebraska or Iowa or Kansas or any of those states as being similar. They don’t have the same economy,” says Metzger, director of research for United Way in southeast Michigan. They don’t have the same density of population. They don’t have those really large core cities.”

Cayton says that, after editing his encyclopedia, he concluded Midwest often translates to diversity and a matter of perception.

“People who live in Nebraska do not necessarily think Ohio is in the Midwest. People who live in Ohio do not necessarily think Minnesota is in the Midwest.

“It makes it difficult.”

It also makes it very American.

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