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A Background of Forest and Farm

Coming home from the Midwestern History Conference, changing trains in Chicago, laying over a few hours at a fourth-floor table in the downtown Harold Washington Library, writing this essay. I am quite certain I am in the midwest. Dawn tomorrow morning I’ll ride the Empire Builder into the Red River Valley and alight in Fargo. At that point I will be equally certain I am in the Great Plains. If I were to ask the first citizen I met whether we were in the midwest, however, the person probably would say yes, and I would not say this is mistaken.

For regions, however much people like to map them, do not have borders. It is quite possible to be in both the midwest and the Great Plains at the same time. Also in the Norwegian settlement region. And in the Bison fan region. All at the same time.

People who obsess about borders probably did not do well at math in high school. They confuse parameters with perimeters. Perimeters, those are geometric. They have edges. Parameters, they are common elements. They define things from the center, according to commonalities.

So, what are the parameters of the Great Plains? Well, listen to a hundred or so of these radio essays, and you may have a fair idea. Or you can start with Walter Prescott Webb and say: level, treeless, and subhumid. These are all physical commonalities. Add in some cultural stuff, like ethnic stock and land use. But you’re still not getting to the heart of it. These things are common conditions, but the distilled commonalities that define the Great Plains are stories, narrative invested in the land. Webb wrote his book, The Great Plains, in 1931 as a self-conscious effort to invest the level land with narrative. The same goes for Plains Folk on Prairie Public every week.

My friends at the Midwestern History Conference say, the midwest has been neglected in history, which is to say, it lacks defining narrative. This they hope to supply. Their defining work is harder than that of the Great Plains historians. The Great Plains all along have been defined by their commonalities. The midwest has taken shape by virtue of being surrounded by other regions. Its historians have to figure out what it means to be in the middle and what stories to tell.

We know enough to say, there are some important differences in our parameters. The midwest has greater urban centers and urban institutions, such as this fine Chicago public library in which I sit. Often the midwest and the Great Plains are at loggerheads over politics, blue and red people like to say these days, but even when they are pursuing similar aims, they do it differently. It is the difference between, say, the Nonpartisan League of the prairies and the Progressivism of the midwest.

The midwest and the Great Plains are fated to confront one another over matters of center and periphery. Some things just tilt east. Plains folk resent the slights and profits of urban midwesterners. Hey, who among us on the plains didn’t cheer when Tyler Roehl ran roughshod through the Gopher secondary?

We have similar conflicts within the Flickertail State, probably always will. It is so easy to typify the Fargo crowd as a bunch of Twinkies and lake people and mall walkers. There is that famous passage from Webb that begins, “The Easterner, with his background of forest and farm, could not always understand the man of the cattle kingdom.” And it goes on to invoke the law of a six-shooter on the hip. But we are so much more civilized now.

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