The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia

2008                    2007                    2006

The Michigan Historical Review
Vol. 34, No. 1, Emerging Borderlands (Spring, 2008), pp. 166-167
Published by: Central Michigan University
Stable URL:

          The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia is a comprehensive volume that captures the history, cultural diversity, and varied geography of America's heardand. Popular images often portray the twelve-state region as a place where average and hardworking, but often dull Americans live. In their introductory essays to The American Midwest, however, general editors Richard Sisson and Andrew Cayton clearly illustrate that the Midwest is a distinct and complex region, which is occupied by people of varied ethnic and social backgrounds who have played a pivotal role in American history.
          Organized by topic, The American Midwest begins by exploring the landscapes and people of the region, and by providing geographic and historical overviews of each state: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. One particularly important early portion of the encyclopedia is titled "Images of the Midwest." In this section entries detail how images in American popular culture both typify and challenge common notions about the region. Four large additional sections cover society and culture, community and social life, economy and technology, and public life. Within these sections, readers can explore such topics as language, folklore, religion, sports, media, rural life, urban centers, labor movements, science and technology, business, politics, and military culture. Each topical portion includes an introductory essay, followed by more detailed subject entries ranging from 250 to 750 words. Subjects for these entries cover an extremely broad range, from the complex geology and glacial features of the region, to Native Americans and white settlers, to recent biographical sketches and technological advancements.
          In his introductory essay, general editor Andrew Cayton maintains that the Midwest is a "recognizable" and distinct region that clearly defies popular images of "unbroken sameness" (p. xxiii). The essays and entries in The American Midwest clearly illustrate this point, and they provide thorough, sometimes surprising, information for readers at nearly any level. The book's greatest strength is its organization. Though the encyclopedia includes more than eighteen hundred pages of entries, its topical organization and the book's thorough index make it highly accessible to readers. Each section also includes a separate table of contents that directs readers to specific topics. Carefully selected illustrations, photographs, maps, tables, charts, and sidebars further enhance several of the entries. Finally, because each entry includes citations for sources and further reading, this encyclopedia provides a solid starting point for researchers exploring new topics. The American Midwest was a tremendous undertaking, and the final product is a well-balanced and extremely useful volume for scholars, researchers, and casual readers interested in learning more about all aspects of midwestern geography, history, and culture.
Jenny Barker-Devine
Iowa State University
          This hefty volume "seeks to explore, interpret, and explain both the Midwest and the elusive sense of identity" (p.xv) that Midwesterners share.  Aiming to create a book "comprehensive, though not exhaustive, and accessible to and informative for a general readershipp as well as a useful reference for scholars interested in regionalism in America" (p.xvi), the editoros define the Midwest as 12 states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Ohio and Wisconsin.  The preface and acknowledgements outline the history of the project since 1998.  A brief reader's guide and general overview precede the five topical sections: "Landscapes and People," "Society and Culture," "Community and Social Life," "Economy and Technology," and "Public Life."  Each section includes a table of contents and an overview essay written by one of the Senior Consulting Editors and a host of shorter, alphabetically arranged subject articles, most acccomplanies by a brief list of references citing sources or suggesting further reading.  Although some Websites and dissertaion references are included, most references cite readily available books and articles.  Black-and-white photographs, illustrations, and sidebars enhance the text.
          Readers may be surpreised by the ethnic and cultural diversity protrayed here and will be pleased to find articles on subjects ranging from "Oprah Winfrey" to "International Crane Foundation" and "Clotheslines."  Best suited for browsing or targeted searches via the excellent index, this essential encyclopedia is suitable for patrons of all public and academic libraries.
Julienne L. Wood

Indiana Magazine of History
Vol. 104, No. 3 (SEPTEMBER 2008), pp. 296-297
Indiana University Department of History

It is a rare and rewarding experience to read a place-based reference work focused on the entire midwestern region of the United States. Ordinarily, such works deal with the nation as a whole or with an individual state, so that readers encounter either too little sub-national detail or too much inconsistency in coverage from one state to another. The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia is thus a welcome and instructive volume, which treats the vernacular Midwest - an area covering much of the upper Mississippi-Ohio-Missouri River drainage basin from the Appalachian Plateaus on the east to the Great Plains on the west - as a coherent and unified region.
          The front dustjacket reproduces Grant Wood's painting of Herbert Hoover's birthplace in West Branch, Iowa, viewed as though from a low flying aircraft, beckoning the reader to join an extended and informative tour of an area far more diverse than even long-time residents may realize. The tour is directed by distinguished leaders - an advisory board of nearly two dozen who in turn assembled as many general and consulting editors, as well as scores of writers and illustrators who have profusely depicted the processes, patterns, and peoples of the American Midwest in prose, poetry, photographs, tables, and maps. Writers and illustrators are bylined at the ends of their entries; editors, advisors, and donors are listed in the opening pages. The important role of the donors is made further apparent in the low price of the volume.
          The encyclopedia is organized into five major sections: "Landscapes and Peoples," "Society and Culture," "Community and Social Life," "Economy and Technology," and "Public Life." Each major section is in turn partitioned into between three and nine subsections and begins with one or two pages of "Section Contents" which list the entries in that section and its subsections. A casual reader who scans the brief "General Contents" listing at the beginning of the book is unlikely to grasp the depth and span of the volume; a detailed three-column index extends over nearly the last 100 pages as an aid to more careful readers. Unfortunately, the editors did not include a list of maps, illustrations, tables, and photographs, and, although the helpful "Reader's Guide" promises a "credits index at the end of the volume" (p. xiii), this reviewer was unable to find a credits list of the 275 photo graphs and 25 reproductions of paint ings and drawings in the volume. Nevertheless, many readers will find familiar sights illustrated in this reference work. This reviewer was delighted to find a photograph showing the Main Street of his wife's home town of Crawfordsville, Indiana, circa 1930 (p. 1077), and another reproducing an aerial view of Memorial Stadium at his home institution of the University of Nebraska (p. 869). A guide to maps and tables would have been a helpful aid for readers interested in geographical patterns or numerical quantities.
          Readers interested in the literature and art of the Midwest will be especially pleased with the work. Indeed, the Society and Culture section - which includes subsections on language, folklore, literature, arts, sports and recreation, and media and entertainment - comprises nearly four-tenths of the entire volume. But history, political science, and geography are also well represented. The treatments of rural, small town, and metropolitan settlement patterns and lifestyles are rewarding, as are the discussions of labor movements, politics, religious and cultural institutions, and science and technology. By this reviewer's count, there are about 200 longer overview essays and nearly 1500 shorter topical entries in this wonderful volume. The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia deserves to be included in the collections of public libraries, middle- and high school libraries, and college and university libraries throughout the Midwest. The book's low list price should make it an affordable addition to the private libraries of interested residents of the region it depicts. All of the many people who worked on this fine volume deserve a round of applause from us Midwesterners. In short, this volume warrants an overall rating of "very highly recommended."
J. Clark Archer
is professor of geography in the
Department of Anthropology and Geography,
University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Vol. 115 (June 07, 2008), p. 121-123
Kent State University Press
In many ways, encyclopedia construction is a thankless job. Involving tremendous coordination among many editors and hundreds of authors, the final product is often judged primarily according to how far it falls short of attaining the impossible goals of overall objectivity, “completeness,” and perfect usefulness. Such hazards are only compounded when attempting to create an encyclopedia that focuses on a region that is itself the subject of contending interpretations and boundaries. This ambitious volume, the culmination of nearly ten years of effort by hundreds of scholars, meets these unrealistic expectations head-on by presenting a comprehensive and scholarly treatment of its subject while at the same time challenging the reader’s expectations of what an encyclopedia should be.
          To even attempt such a daunting task as this requires the marshaling of considerable talent, and the encyclopedia’s general editors (Ohio State University political scientist Richard Sisson, Ohio State University, College of Humanities director Christian Zacher, and Miami University historian Andrew Cayton) headed what can only be called an all-star National Editorial Advisory Board. They recruit not only distinguished scholars and university presidents, but also such luminaries as former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove, former U.S. senator Paul Simon, and radio personality Garrison Keillor. Although weighted heavily toward the field of history, the book includes twenty-seven general and senior consulting editors as well as scholars from such diverse fields as geography, art, folklore, linguistics, literature, education, communication, religion, political science, and neurology. The interdisciplinary nature of its many editors and authors makes this encyclopedia noticeably different from most others, which tend to focus exclusively on history.
          Perhaps the volume’s biggest difference from these other works, though, is reflected in its subtitle: “An Interpretive Encyclopedia.” Drawing inspiration from works such as The New Encyclopedia of the American West and Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, the editors note that their work “seeks to explore, interpret, and explain both the Midwest and [its] elusive sense of identity” (xv). As if to cement this goal in the reader’s mind, the book begins with various authors’ essays of each of the twelve midwestern states covered in the book (North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio). These are subjective pieces, reflecting sometimes competing visions of the Midwest by authors who more often than not have no listed academic affiliation (Kurt Vonnegut’s portrait of Indiana and the Midwest is particularly noteworthy).
          The encyclopedia’s interpretive approach might be a bit disconcerting for the casual user. Unlike the alphabetical organization that is standard for most reference works, this volume is organized thematically. Its major sections are “Landscapes and People,” “Society and Culture,” “Community and Social Life,” “Economy and Technology,” and “Public Life,” with similarly thematic subsections (e.g., “Rural Life,” “Small-Town Life,” and “Urban and Suburban Life” comprising “Community and Social Life”). Even within subsections of the book, the thematic approach is evident, with articles generally arranged from the general to the specific, although the organization after this varies from section to section. For example, while some subsections have specific entries arranged alphabetically, others maintain the interpretive rubric to the end by listing them chronologically. The comprehensive and user-friendly index allows for alphabetical reference when needed.
          Although some readers might balk at the unconventional structure, this arrangement makes the volume significantly more useful for the purposes of placing individual entries in a larger context. Whereas searching for, say, the “Ohio and Erie Canal” in a standard encyclopedia might yield a fine description of it and little more, finding it in “Ohio Canals” in the “Transportation” subsection of The American Midwest gives the reader the opportunity to explore and compare this information with neighboring related articles. Appearing next to “Ohio Canals” are entries on canal systems in other states, transportation along the Ohio River and other riverine systems, the Great Lakes, and midwestern surface routes. The thematic organization thus magnifies the encyclopedia’s explanatory capabilities and provides the reader with a more complete understanding of the topic under study.
          Ironically, one of the book’s minor weaknesses is tied to its strength as a thematically organized reference work. Because authors of each article had no knowledge of what other authors were writing, there is a great deal of repetition among articles grouped under the same theme. For example, the Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota (the first enclosed shopping mall), draws mention in three different articles on nearly consecutive pages in the “Urban and Suburban Life” section (1203–7); and similar descriptions of the Edmund Fitzgerald appear in six separate articles, three of which are grouped closely together under “Transportation.” While multiple mentions of particular things and events are not unusual in an encyclopedia, the repetition is certainly more noticeable in an interpretive volume.
          One could certainly raise other, more substantive complaints as well. A work that is the product of numerous authors will inevitably be uneven in places, and some articles and interpretive essays are noticeably more thoughtful and comprehensive than others. Furthermore, any given reader might wish that more (or less) attention was paid to certain subjects, or that the interpretive categories were defined differently. Such predictable quibbles as these, however, are relatively minor in comparison to everything that this volume does well. If the goals of the editors were to “explore, interpret, and explain” the Midwest, while at the same time being “comprehensive, though not exhaustive, and accessible to and informative for a general readership as well as a useful reference for scholars interested in regionalism in America” (xvi), then The American Midwest more than succeeds in achieving its ends. It is an admirable and useful volume for which a generation of midwestern scholars should be extremely thankful.
Kevin Kern
The University of Akron