The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia

2008                    2007                    2006

Vol. 60, No. 8 (Winter, 2007/2008), pp. 338-339
Minnesota Historical Society Press
Any way you look at it, The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia is impressive. With 1,917 pages and over 350 photo - weighing in at a mere nine lap-crushing pounds - it is what you might expect from a book that covers the wide swath of geography from Ohio to Nebraska, Minnesota to Missouri. What is unexpected, though equally impressive, is the breadth of information available on these 12 states that hang together under such names as "the heartland," "the middle border," or more derogatorily, American's "fly-over country." As an interpretive encyclopedia, essays are clustered not by state, but by broad categories: landscapes and people, society and culture, community and social life, economy and technology, and public life. Within each category are subcategories and articles on lesser topics, specific places, and representative people. The arrangement makes it harder to find single entries (although this is solved with a stop at the exhaustive index), but much easier for the browser to wander the intellectual back roads of this encyclopedia. However you approach this sprawling work, you'll come away with an appreciation for the variety and complexity of this great place in the middle.
The Last Word on the Heartland
A Massive New Interpretive Encyclopedia of the Midwest Gives Flyover Country its Due.
The Midwest is, hands down, the Rodney Dangerfield of American regions.
          Alternately labeled the Rust Belt, the Frost Belt and the Heartland, written off as flyover country by coastal elites, it was famously dismissed in the iconic Saul Steinberg New Yorker drawing of a Manhattanite’s view of the world as barely registering on the map.  A Lexis search of news coverage, meanwhile, would yield literally thousands of references to the friendliness (code for unsophisticated hayseed behavior)of Midwesterners. Some of this is understandable: Many of the natives are indeed quite friendly.  And the can-do Midwest has none of the South’s gothic drama about suffering loss and defeat, and only some of the mountain West’s celebration of rugged independence and victory over the elements.  Plus, it’s not even clear that a place 1,000 miles across and containing a dozen states – from Ohio to North Dakota – even really coheres as a single region, but for the unique bonding agent that is Big Ten football.
          Still, as anyone who’s lived in the Midwest will readily tell you, there’s a lot worth celebrating.  Much of it is abundantly captured in a brilliant new reference work, The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia, published by Indiana University Press, with substantial help from Ohio (Ohio State University was the single largest financial contributor, and all three general editors are Ohio-based academics).  At 1,800 oversized pages, brimming with hundreds of lively essays on every imaginable Midwestern subject, it’s an autodidact’s delight, and a great addition to any serious reader’s library.  But at $75 a copy, it may not exactly fly off bookstore shelves.
          The authors are overwhelmingly academics (though Deanna R. Adams, longtime Northern Ohio Live contributor and author of the encyclopedic Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Cleveland Connection, does have an entry on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum), but the writing is refreshingly free of jargon.  I had few quibbles as I worked my way through this massive tome. I did find it odd that the entry for the mighty Mississippi River was only as long as the one for quilts, and I could have done without the first-person diversions in some of the state overviews.  I was one-third of my way through it before noticing the first glaring omission: Canton’s Pro Football Hall of Fame was missing from an entry about various halls of fame found in the region.
          Besides being well written, the essays are nicely balanced between familiar and arcane subjects, as well as the serious and the light (there are entries on such subjects as garage rock and car customizing).  Unlike many products of academia, it somehow avoids being tiresomely politically correct (I expected the American Indian perspective to be injected into every other subject, but it comes up only where appropriate). And unlike the excellent Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, the editors of this work didn’t ban the still-living from its pages.  Thus, you’ll find entries on such notable Midwestern-connected figures as Jesse Jackson, folk historian Studs Terkel and playwright David Mamet.  The section on regional folklore is particularly interesting.
          Like so much else in American life, the Midwest owes a debt to Thomas Jefferson.  His Northwest Land Ordinance of 1785 initially laid out the six-mile-square grid pattern, from which most of the region’s subsequent developments grew.  That grid pattern is still evident today from the air.
One of the book’s ongoing themes concerns dispelling myths about the Midwest.  No, this region is not eh only one in the country without an accent (the familiar “Cleveland Honk” belies that).  While “the Midwest is often conceived in the American psyche as an undramatic place,” the authors note, like every region, it has its share of drama.  And while “the words culture and Midwestern are rarely linked in the American popular consciousness,” the evidence produced here makes it clear that there’s little evidence to support that stereotype.
          Given the larger economic and demographic trends in the country and the world, the Midwest will never again play the outsized role it once did in national events.  To their credit, the editors of this encyclopedia don’t pretend otherwise.  They write that “twentieth-century transportation improvements have reduced the competitive position of the Midwest … as a result, the South and the West have become increasingly attractive, as have offshore locations.”  They also note that between 1990 and 2000, only two of the 50 fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the United States were found in the Midwest.
          But look on the bright side, Midwesterners.  If things ever get bad enough in the region, we can simply use our troubles the way crafty southerners have always leveraged being on the losing end of the Civil War: as a kind of reverse snobbery of suffering.  Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
John Ettorre

Midwest Living Magazine
July/August 2007

The big book of us
If you boil the Midwest down to about one square foot, it weighs 8.75 pounds, runs 1,916 pages, includes 354 black-and-white photos and has a Grant Wood painting on the cover.  The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia from Indiana University Press may not include everything you should know about our region, but you’ll close this new book and start spouting fascinating – and even useful – facts to your friends long before you realize that.  You’ll learn where to find all of the region’s Frank Lloyd Wright buildings.  Which Native American tribe once lived in your area.  Where to see great outdoor drama.  Plus, the book has juicy tidbits aplenty including what Bob Dylan really thinks of his native Minnesota.

CHOICE magazine
Current Reviews for Academic Libraries
July 2007 Vol. 44 No. 11

The American Midwest considers 12 states that the editors believe have a particular sense of identity: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.  A general tale of contents outlines five major sections: “Landscapes and People,” “Society and Culture,” “Community and Social Life,” “Economy and Technology,” and “Public Life.”  Each theme has three to nine sections; in turn, each section offers its own table of contents, and overview article, and a series of essays with sources and further readings.  The essays, which are expertly written, cover disparate topics that are drawn together in the overviews. For example, in “Landscapes and People,” the “Images of the Midwest” section includes essays titled “Vastness,” “The Corn Palace,” “Duluth Ore Boats,” “Superman and His Kansas Roots,” “Nordic America,” “Lake Wobegon,” and “Jesse James.”  Other essays are affectionate and penetrating portraits of the 12 states as viewed by local experts.  The term “encyclopedia,” even when deemed “interpretive,” is somewhat misleading.  The work is more a collection of provocative readings that may inspire further research.  Those looking for facts and figures on the Midwest will find that the expected information may be neglected or scattered.  For example, the article on the 18th-century Native Americans occupies only seven pages.  Although the index cites numerous bits of information about Native Americans, this work does not provide cohesive, detailed information on the tribes.  An overall table of contents and better page headings would help readers maintain their orientation within the volume.  At a hefty nine pounds, the work is difficult to handle.  Summing Up: Recommended. All levels.
J. Drueke
University of Nebraska--Lincoln

Columbus Business First
Monday, June 4, 2007

Ohio profs aim to bolster Midwest with hefty tome on history, culture
Columbus has a well-documented problem overcoming its lack of a national image and, in that respect, it can stand as a proxy for the Midwest.
    Once you get here, of course, you learn the city has a lot of interesting history and culture, and is far different from its lesser brethren up and down Interstate 71.
    That understanding of regional differences and culture is what three Ohio professors are trying to foster with "The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia." The 1,890-page book, published by Indiana University Press, was co-edited by Ohio State University professors Christian Zacher and Richard Sisson with Andrew Cayton from Miami University.
    The book is the culmination of an effort begun in 1999, when the publisher approached Ohio State University's Institute for Collaborative Research and Public Humanities about putting it together. Zacher agreed to help in part because doing so would fit with the institute's mission of connecting academia with the community, and royalty income would support its endowment.
    He and his co-editors were Midwesterners interested in promoting a better understanding of the region.
    The book is not an encyclopedia in the traditional sense, with the editors stressing the interpretive part of the title. Zacher said the editors wanted more of a coffee table book than a reference work, so they focused on telling stories rather than compiling facts.
    With 1,045 contributors writing 1,437 entries, the book "presents readers and other users with a host of ideas about the Midwest, a place of great variety to begin with," he said.
    It took a team of editorial assistants five years to commission, read, fact-check and otherwise get the book ready for publication, he said.
    The book is divided into general categories covering landscapes and people, society and culture, community and social life, economy and technology, and public life.
    An opening essay on Ohio was written by the late New York Times newsman R.W. Apple, a native of Akron.
    Zacher said they sold about 1,500 copies in the first month after it was released this year, a high number for such a book.
    It's available for $75 at
Doug Buchanan

Ohioana Quarterly
Summer 2007

   The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia provides an immense, all-encompassing, yet highly accessible overview of all things Midwestern from the long ago past to the present.  The hardcover oversized book, which is nearly 2,000 pages, seeks to define and outline the many facets of Middle America that help to define it as a region. It can be fairly said that this book provides a nearly exhaustive contemporary assessment of the American Heartland.
   The encyclopedia serves as a historical and cultural document that the editors, Richard Sisson, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University, Christian Zacher, English professor at Ohio State, and Andrew R. L. Cayton, distinguished professor of history at Miami University at Oxford, have injected with an expertise in and a passion for their respective academic disciplines. As described by the editors, the project “seeks to embrace this large and diverse area, to give it voice, and help define its complex, yet distinctive character.”
   In doing so, the book is organized around five central themes, which constitute the major chapter sections of the encyclopedia: Midwestern Landscapes and People, Society and Culture, Community and Social Life, Economy and Technology, and Public Life.  Underneath these general chapter headings are more specific subheading.  For example, the first major chapter of the book, “Landscapes and People,” contains in it the sub-topics “Portraits of the Twelve States,” “Images of the Midwest,” “Geography,” and “Peoples.”  Within these subtopics, several other subheadings are addressed, which stresses the editors’ prefatory statements that the book is “organized by topic...each section moves from the general to the specific, covering broad themes in longer introductory essays, filling in the details in the shorter entries that follow.”  Thus, the encyclopedia contains a wealth of data, trivia, and important historical facts about the region and its constituent states.  And while the book is quite bulky, it is actually quite easy to reference.
   For example, in just a couple of hours, one can dredge up a vast array of information on most any Midwestern subject.  The accomplishments and lore of Ohio and Ohioans receive adequate, accurate representation in the book, beginning with the straightforward, journalistic “Portrait” of Ohio penned by the distinguished and now decease Akron native R. W. Apple, Jr., a former associate editor of the New York Times.  Ohio—born writers Sherwood Anderson, William Dean Howells, Charles Waddell Chestnut, James Thurber, Toni Morrison, and Rita Dove testify to the diversity in Ohio letters; each of these writers is honored with an entry in the “Literature” section of the encyclopedia, which is contained under the “Society and Culture” heading.  Other notable Ohioans are also showcased.  For example, Tecumseh and William Tecumseh Sherman are discussed as significant “Military Leaders” in the portion of the “Public Life” chapter that is devoted to “Military Affairs,” while former President Rutherford B. Hayes claims an entry in the “Representative National Public Figures” section of “Small-town Life,” which is contained in the chapter “Community and Social Life.”  Also discussed in this chapter are Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland, which are highlighted as some of the Midwest’s “Central Cities.”  And along perpas more trivial lines, readers can find out why Ohioans are called “Buckeyes” and Indianans “Hoosiers” in the “Images of the Midwest” section of the chapter “Landscapes and People,” or discover the importance of catfish in Midwestern folklore and recreation in “Society and Culture.”
   While the cost of the text is somewhat prohibitive, the encyclopedia is well worth the investment.  It is accessible to both common and academic reader, and contains information relevant to both demographics.  This book is an essential text for all Midwestern libraries.  It is candid, objective, and informative.  And the encyclopedia pays tribute to Mid-America.  Rather than stereotypically envisioning the Midwest as the epitome of the American status quo, the editors reveal the Heartland to be “a crucible of dramatic political protest, social reform, labor unions, and cultural movements” where “whatever the Midwest lacks in flamboyance or precision, it gains in significance.”  Middle-American people, landscapes, and culture all stand to benefit from this weighty work of scholarship, as it provides us with a holistic guide for understanding ourselves, our neighbors, our regional landscape, and our place on the national stage.
Michael C. Ryan

South Dakota History
Summer 2007
Vol. 37, No. 2  pp. 175-6

Just what is the Midwest?  Although the essence of a place can never be definitively captured—even in a work stretching to almost two thousand pages—this ambitious publication productively engages the question.
    The accessibly written encyclopedia is composed of nearly one thousand five hundred entries by over a thousand contributors under the direction of three general editors, all Ohioans.  The volume begins with reflective and engaging essays on each of the twelve states designated as Midwestern: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin, and the eastern halves of Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.
    Although few entries are devoted exclusively to South Dakota and only a handful of the contributors are South Dakotans, observations and facts about the state are woven into the encyclopedia’s general content.  Overview essays introduce each of the main sections, organized under the general themes of landscapes and people, society and culture, community and social life, economy and technology, and public life.  Sources and suggestions for further reading follow the individual entries.  Material on groups “traditionally excluded or underrepresented” (p. xxiii) is intentionally incorporated throughout the entire volume.
    For the encyclopedia’s pages, we learn that coeducational and racially integrated colleges, soap operas and talk shows, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and Alcoholics Anonymous, and corn dogs and cornflakes all originated in the Midwest.
    The authors approach the Midwest as both geographic place and state of min.  They acknowledge the significant and pervasive influence of popular images and stereotypes, including nostalgic, idealized perceptions and those equating the Midwest with homogeneity and monotony.  Then they delve deeper to reveal a more complex reality.  In presenting a fuller picture, contributors emphasize the cultural diversity of the Midwest and explore both negative and positive elements of the region’s history.  Racism, exploitation, and economic tensions are all addressed, as are changing technologies, demographics, and social structures.
    “No other place on earth brought so many different human beings together in such a short period of time to negotiate and fashion new ways of life,” asserts editor Andrew Cayton of the nineteenth-century Midwest (p. xix).  A number of encyclopedia entries cover this historical era, while others focus on more recent times, examining the impact of continued change and the challenges of adaptation.
    The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia complements the recently published Encyclopedia of the Great Plains and The New Encyclopedia of the American West.  Drawing upon heightened interest in regional studies, the volume at the same time raises the concern of regional identity loss. “Perhaps as its economic base changes or withers and local customs fade, [the Midwest] will lose its peculiar self-image, as many areas of the world are doing in this age of globalization,” reflects contributor Dwight Hoover (p. 1,091).
    The encyclopedia stands as a defense against this threatened disappearance, carefully documenting the region’s distinctive history and showing how dearly held is a sense of place and identity.  As Midwestern author Louise Erdrich states, “We cannot abandon our need for reference, identity or our pull to landscapes that mirror our most intense feelings” (quoted on pp. 523-24).  Or, in the words of Bob Dylan, likewise describing the pull of place, “I’m North Dakota-Minnesota-Midwestern.  I’m that color.  I speak that way” (quoted on p. xv).
Lisa Lindell
South Dakota State University
Brookings, S.Dak.

The Ohio State University Alumni Magazine
May/June 2007

The heart of the Heartland
A new encyclopedia captures the astonishing variety of Ohio and the Midwest.
Those stodgy Midwesterners – always planting corn, painting their white picket fences, or rocking peacefully on their front porches. Denizens of the Heartland, home of flat accents and amber waves of grain.
    Recognize yourself?
    We didn’t think so. Even if you now live in San Diego or Tokyo or Upper Puddlejump, England, most of you were Midwesterners for at least a few years of your life.  And you know you never saw any waves of grain on the Oval.
    A new book, The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia, doesn’t squash stereotypes so much as put them under a microscope – along with facts and figures, people and places, foods and films, ideas and inventions, and innovations, products of the 12 states that make up the vast swath on the map known as Middle America. It’s a region some dismiss as white-bread bland, with no specific identity, and others argue has a vibrant personality unto itself.  Still others consider it a microcosm of the U.S. as a whole.  “We believe we make the case that the Midwest embodies the national culture more than any other region of the country,” said co-editor Christian Zacher, a professor of English at Ohio State.
    At a thumping 1900 pages, The American Midwest, published by Indiana University Press, is the culmination of years of work coordinated at Ohio State’s Institute of Collaborative Research and Public Humanities.  Zacher led the project; his co-editors were Richard Sisson, emeritus provost and professor of political science at Ohio State, and Andrew Cayton, Distinguished Professor of History at Miami University.
    Overall, the book contains some 1500 entries from nearly as many contributors, along with hundreds of photos and illustrations.  Turn to page 1799 to study a map of missile sites in the Upper Midwest.  Page 163 has a paragraph on the pasty, a meat pie introduced to Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula by immigrant Cornish miners.  Here’s a photo of suffragists in Columbus in the early 1900s; there’s an essay on garage bands, “[probably] the most widespread grassroots form of group music-making in the Midwest over the past 40 years.”  An entire section is dedicated to languages, figures of speech, and the like.  Several entries address the depiction of Kansas and its natives in The Wizard of Oz.
    In his overview to the volume, Cayton writes: “Perhaps we tend to slight the significance of the Midwest because its history is largely a narrative of the accumulation of ordinary events into large-scale change rather than a story of dramatic turning points....
    “In accepting what the region has become and the image it projects (or what other people project onto it) we sometimes lose sight of its diversity, its exceptionalism, and the paths its residents have chosen not to follow.”
    And of the paths they have chosen to follow, The American Midwest paints an intricate and wide-ranging portrait.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
May 6, 2007

Midwest ordinary? Not in these 1,890 pages
The Midwest is Grant Wood's "American Gothic" and Sinclair Lewis' "Main Street."
    It is barns and silos, steel and rust, Bob Dylan's songs and Toni Morrison's novels, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois and Dwight Eisenhower of Kansas, Father Charles Coughlin thundering on the radio during the 1930s and Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly dueling over women's rights in the 1970s.
    It is image and substance, a state of mind and a group of states, tumultuous history, politics and culture, now all crammed into a new book called "The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia."
    Spanning 1,890 pages and weighing in at 8 pounds, the encyclopedia is a lot like its subject: big, brawny, hardworking, plainspoken, and yes, far more interesting and outrageous than you ever imagined.
    The Midwest? Ordinary?
    "You say ordinariness? Ah, ah, there are wild people in the Midwest, creative people, thank God. The urban centers on the coasts should be thankful for the Midwest," says Richard Sisson, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University.
    Sisson, Christian Zacher, an Ohio State English professor, and Andrew Cayton, a historian at Miami University of Ohio, are the general editors of this remarkable book published by Indiana University Press.
    It cost $1 million to produce, combined the talents of more than 1,000 contributors and took less than a decade to complete, Sisson says.
    "The Midwest is the most difficult region to define," Sisson says. "The South is quite simple. The Eastern seaboard is quite simple."
    "Texas is there," he says as if pointing to a map. "California is there. And the Northwest is there, but what about the Midwest?"
    The editors zeroed in on 12 Midwestern states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
    "There is no sign saying, 'you are now leaving the Midwest,' " Zacher says.
    There's no arrival sign, either. Some might say that Pittsburgh and Buffalo qualify as Midwestern cities. But they don't make the cut.
    The editors struggled with issues about organization, subject matter, even whether to issue an electronic version of the work. They stuck with print, in a bid to issue a "monumental statement about the importance of the Midwest," Zacher says. "One way we could do that is to have that thick book that is hard to lift, to make it visible and tangible."
    William Cronon, a historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, served on the encyclopedia's national editorial advisory board. James P. Leary, director of the folklore program at UW-Madison, was a senior consulting editor.
    The book's target market comprises schools, libraries and government offices, plus individuals with a passion and interest in the Midwest.
    Essays define words that have come to define the region. Flyover country is "a term of playful condescension toward rural America from an urban perspective." Heartland "has an odd history, throughout which its meaning has expanded. From a geopolitical abstraction, to embodiment of the longstanding Midwestern myth, to a revenue-producing slogan, the interpretations keep multiplying."
    Profiles of the states offer fascinating nuggets of information, analysis and just plain observation.
    "Despite the myriad goodies Wisconsin has laid before the world - Liberace, the typewriter, the Republican Party - our collective identity remains inextricably cheesy," Michael Perry writes of Wisconsin.
    The editors were "knocked out" by Richard Ralston's essay on African-American resorts in the Midwest, including Lake Ivanhoe in southeastern Wisconsin.
    "At their peak, black resorts featured performers such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Dinah Washington, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Della Reese," writes Ralston, an emeritus faculty member in the Afro-American studies department at UW-Madison.
    This is the Midwest in all its tumult and glory, politicians as varied as Fighting Bob La Follette and Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, radicals and conservatives, labor leaders and business titans.
    And remember: The encyclopedia is interpretative, not a just-the-facts look at a large chunk of America. It can make for some unsettling reading.
    "What Milwaukee will become in the twenty-first century is unclear," writes Anthony M. Orum, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Problems remain, especially the divisions between minorities and whites in the city. Once an exporter of major equipment to countries across the world, Milwaukee is now simply a small regional center, far overshadowed in the emerging global economy by Chicago. It has yet, in fact, to find its own unique niche and identity in the new century."
    But rest assured. Milwaukee is part of a large, important region, a place of strength and purpose. Or, as the late Kurt Vonnegut concludes in an essay on Indiana and the Midwest: "What geography can give all Middle Westerners, along with the fresh water and topsoil, if they let it, is awe for an Edenic continent stretching forever in all directions. Makes you religious. Takes your breath away."
Bill Glauber

Indianapolis, IN

What comes to mind when you hear “the Midwest”? This imposing yet accessible survey explicates the common images, and then some. The authors of essays gathered around landscape and people, society and culture, community and social life, economy and technology, and public life succeed in both informing and sparking a desire to commence a discussion with the next person who walks through the door.
    Beginning with a treatise on the significance of settling the Midwest as being nothing short of revolutionary on multiple levels, and concluding with an insightful overview of military affairs, territorial jurisdiction is what takes center stage. This heartland of woodlands and plains has never been static since being peopled some 12,000 years ago. Adaptation and development have been continuous, yet 17th-19th century events caused radical and dramatic changes that evolved into what Hoosier pundit Meredith Nicholson called “a common law of dispersion” propelled by a drive to find less populated places to re-make into our own images and ideals.
Rita Kohn

The Columbus Dispatch
Sunday March 4, 2007

Boring? Not us
Midwestern residents are surprisingly diverse, editors say

    In the recently published The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia, "Language" editor Dennis Preston writes, "Midwesterners are thought to be strong, brave, polite, hardworking, self-effacing, selfsufficient, generous, friendly, Protestant, white, normal, average, and boring."
    And maybe some Midwesterners are all that. But, as with any stereotype, the truth is far more complex -- and interesting.
    The three general editors of the encyclopedia are Andrew Cayton, a Miami University history professor; Richard Sisson, an Ohio State University professor emeritus of political science; and Christian Zacher, an English professor at OSU.
    "Midwesterners are more interesting under the surface than they are at first glance," Cayton said. "We tend to downplay what's unique about us in order to stress what we have in common with others. We also pay too much attention to what we think people in other places make of us."
    The people involved in the making of the encyclopedia, he said, "hope that it will encourage regional residents to celebrate their diversity, honor their disagreements, and see how much the Midwest is a product of multiple religious, ethnic, and cultural traditions."
    Those involved include the three general editors plus three consulting editors, 24 senior consulting editors and a 17-member advisory board -- not to mention 1,045 freelance writers who contributed 1,500 essays on a myriad of topics regarding the region's 12 states: Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
    Cayton, Sisson and Zacher answered questions by e-mail:
    Q: What was the most fascinating thing you learned about the Midwest while working on the encyclopedia?
    Cayton: The incredible cultural diversity of the Midwest stunned us. We learned about all kinds of foods, customs, heritages, languages and religions that few people would associate with the supposedly bland Midwest.
    We didn't know about ice fishing; now we do. We didn't know about lutefisk; now we do. We didn't fully appreciate the geographic diversity of the region; now we do.
    One of the most interesting discoveries was the idiosyncratic patterns of Midwestern dialects and vocabularies. Anybody who thinks Midwesterners all sound the same will want to linger in our section on languages.
    Zacher: Among the things I found most fascinating would be the existence of African-American recreational resorts, Indian-run museums and how the talk show and soap operas started here; and why some Midwestern governors serve for so long -- the title of one entry.
    More generally, what I'm still learning from rereading the book is that, in my life traveling throughout the Midwest, I haven't understood the half of it.
    Q: At the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry & Labor, a sign from the entrance of an old steel mill announces, in seven or eight languages, "Safety Starts Here." Is that emblematic of the Midwest?
    Cayton: At the end of the 19 th century, the Midwest was one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse places in the world. Iowa, as one of our articles shows, was home to multiple religious traditions. Cities like Chicago, Cincinnati and Milwaukee had newspapers in several different languages.
    Sisson: The industrial productivity of the Midwest was extraordinary and before World War II became so by virtue of the energies of immigrants from a host of linguistic cultures. Later immigrants to contribute were blacks and whites from the South and border states.
    The American industrial revolution would not have happened without the labor of immigrants with a thirst for a better life. And many also came to lead social and labor movements devoted to assuring that promise.
    Q: If someone asked you what it means to be a Midwesterner, how would you answer?
    Cayton: It's mainly a state of mind, one that people become more conscious of when they leave the region. One of the reasons the popular image of the Midwest associates it with comfort and home is that people who left the region to live elsewhere created that image.
    Novels and movies . . . were often the work of nostalgic adults fondly remembering their childhood.

Bill Eichenberger

The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Sunday March 4, 2007

Midwest passages
Encyclopedia assembles essays on the essence of the nation’s midsection.
    Out in the public imagination, the Midwest is a comforting iconic place.
    Out in Southern California, Warner Bros. studio capitalizes on this by maintaining a “Midwest Street.”
    We all know its contours and its residents. “Inhabitants of the Midwest are widely thought of as hard-working, thrifty, devoted to family values, strong in character, comfortable with normalcy, rather sedate, and cautious about change.”
    So write three Ohioans who have spent more than a decade and $1.3 million in private and public cash to edit “The American Midest, An Interpretive Encyclopedia,” a sweeping, intellectually robust and unorthodox new work.  Its backers are enthusiastic, including the Ohio General Assembly, which plunked down $50,000 to help underwrite it.
    The mission of the encyclopedia is civic, to stir up consideration of a section of the nation sometimes condescended to as “Flyover Country.”
    In fact, the book contains a lively essay on the term “Flyover Country.”  Other surprises include an article on how and why talk showas an soap operas began in the Midwest; the particularities of the 16-inch softball game played in Chicago and the rich history of black recreation resorts.
    Elsewhere, a scholar contemplates why Midwest governors tend to serve so long.
    One iconic voice out of the region belongs to Bob Dylan, who described himself as “North Dakota-Minnesota-Midwestern  I’m that color, I speak that way.  I’m from someplace called the Iron Range.  My brains and feelings come from there.”
    Johnny Carson put the idea plainly: “I’m a guy from the Midwest.  That’s who I was, that’s who I am.”
    And we, who live in the spot, recognize what they mean,
    The words of Carson and Dylan, alongside those of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison and Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” trail down the back cover of the encyclopedia, hinting that it is not your parents’ World Book.
    Those who consider the Midwest plain vanilla are invited to think again.  Temperance, currency reform, the reach of public education, labor unions and corporate regulation all fomented and spread from the crucible at the nation’s midsection.  Pasedena, Calif. looks like a slice or Chicago because Chicagoans put it together. 
    Modern civilization, in fact, reached a pivot point in 1893 in Chicago, where the World’s Columbian Exposition introduced visitors to movable sidewalks and the Ferris wheel and whetted appetites for Cracker Jack, hamburgers, carbonated beverages, Juicy Fruit gum and Aunt Jemima syrup.
    In “The American Midwest,” the maps and statistical tables are well-rendered and the facts are triple-checked, but the flavor springs from the bold interpretive flair of the overviews and section introductions.  R.W. Apple Jr. is incisive and unsentimental in his essay on Ohio.  Kurt Vonnegut is poetic about... Indiana.
    “What geography can give all Middle Westerners,” Vonnegut concludes, “along with the fresh water and topsoil, if they let it, is awe for an Edenic continent stretching forever in all direction.  Makes you religious.  Takes your breath away.”
    That affirmation may seem more at home in a pulpit than an encyclopedia, but it please Richard Sisson, a political science professor and provost emeritus of Ohio State University.  He helped launch and guide the book.
    “When I first read Kurt Vonnegut’s essay,” Sisson said this week, “I jumped out of my chair, thrust my fist in the air and shouted ‘Yes! This is the Midwest!’”
    All 12 states are represented by essays from artists and thinkers who grew up in them.  Akron native Apple, who died last October, contributed his Ohio piece two years ago.  Its last sentence strikes a more downbeat note than Vonnegut’s: “As a whole, the state’s economy stands perilously close to stagnation.”
    Sisson remembers discussing it with him. “Johnny Apple was quite a character, and an honest man.  He said, ‘Dick, this is the way it is.’
“Everything isn’t rosy about our region, and we [editors] wanted to depict warts and all.  So we pay attention to labor/industrial violence, race riots, the whole range of social expression – that which is elevating and that which is disheartening.”
    Sisson, who at 70 lives in Santa Fe, N.M., paused on the telephone. “Of course, out of the disheartening can come the elevating.”
The encyclopedia would have been impossible without e-mail, said co-editor Christian Zacher, who directs the Ohio State Institute for Collaborative Research and Public Humanities.  His offices served as home base.
    With 1,045 scholars sending in 1,437 entries in multiple versions, the electronic tracking allowed the trio and their staff to keep chaos at bay.  Zacher said he, Sisson and co-editor Andrew Cayton of Miami University – considered the historian of Ohio – became near-kin.
    All contributors were informed that American Indian, blacks and women would not be shunted into “other” categories in this encyclopedia.  The editors were determined to produce a work that surpassed tokenism and attempted to lift up the telling detail – for instance, that 11 out of the 12 Midwest states take their names from Indian languages. [Indiana is the exception; the name is an English variation on Indian.]
    “We hoped this would be a significant moment to start people thinking about the Midwest as a region, as they do in the South or the West,” Cayton said.  “We hoped the book itself, the heft of it, would be a statement.”
Karen R. Long
Book Editor

The Lima News
February 14, 2007

Big book shows Midwest in all its diversity
People think they know all about the Midwest.
    Turns out they don't know the half of it.
    A new encyclopedia, nine years in the making, answers just about any question you might ask about America's vast heartland, and thousands of others you'd never think to ask.
    The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia (Indiana University Press, $75) brings together 1,916 pages -- about eight pounds' worth -- of essays on the history, people, cultures, glories and eccentricities of the region that stretches from Missouri to Michigan and from Ohio to Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.
    Traditionally, in the words of consulting editor Dennis Preston, Midwesterners have been seen as "strong, brave, polite, hardworking, self-effacing, self-sufficient, generous, friendly, Protestant, white, normal, average, and boring." The encyclopedia, Andrew Cayton said this week, is an attempt to see the region in new ways.
    Cayton, a Cincinnati native and Miami University history professor, is one of three general editors of the encyclopedia along with Richard Sisson and Christian Zacher. Even the idea of the Midwest as a distinctive region -- like the South or the West -- is fairly new, Cayton said.
    "My theory is that unlike other places, from about the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, the Midwest was pretty much synonymous with the United States," he said. "Regional identity is usually defined in opposition to the mainstream. ... Until World War II or even into the 1950s, the Midwest was not as seen as distinctive or peculiar or strange in any interesting way. Chicago was a 'normal' American city."
    Upon closer examination, there are more variants of normalcy than first meet the eye. Getting a handle on the whole Midwest, and on what it means to be Midwestern, was a task of immense complexity.
    Drawing on the talents of more than 700 scholars and writers, the encyclopedia lays out their findings thematically. Major sections -- each subdivided into smaller categories and entries -- include "Landscapes and People," "Society and Culture," and "Community and Social Life."
    Under such large umbrellas is a wealth of detail. Lima turns up in discussions of the oil and rail industries, and Phyllis Diller is listed among the "disproportionate number of important comedians" who have come out of the Midwest. There are also references to Neil Armstrong, Hugh Downs, the namesakes of Hardin and Logan counties, and the annual turkey dinner at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in the Paulding County village of Payne.
    Reaching beyond northwestern Ohio, a reader can learn about Yoopers, the Funk Brothers and the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. Anyone who's ever listened to Garrison Keillor on the radio and wondered what he was talking about when he mentioned lutefisk can find an explanation on page 373.
    Clearly, there's more going on here than is popularly supposed, and there always has been. Cayton, who has devoted much of his career to writing about the region, describes the Midwest as a crucible of social movements, political protest and social reform. Moreover, he wrote in an introductory overview for the encyclopedia, "The reputation of the Midwest as homogeneous is largely an act of imagination. ... Beyond easy generalizations ... lies enormous variety."
    If there is one theme that unifies the entire effort, it might be the attempt to replace a stereotype of bland homogeneity with a sense of rich diversity.
    "That's fair to say," Cayton said. "But it's a labor of love. We're Midwesterners and proud of it. It's not an expose. But we are trying to counter some popular impressions and show that the Midwest isn't a bland, boring, normal place with no diversity.
    "We're trying to peel back some layers and show that there's a lot more to flyover country than you'd think if all you read is the national media."
    You can comment on this story at
Mike Lackey