Midwest: Where Is It?

Now on week three of my promised Sunday morning series about the Midwest, some thoughtful readers have chimed in to ask: do you even know what you’re talking about?

Now, in truth, that question is asked regularly on any number of topics I have addressed in this and other spaces. It’s not even limited to my writing. In my personal life and in casual conversations with friends this question sometimes comes up.

But in this context I believe the question is better focussed and not necessarily a commentary on my lack of knowledge or insight. Instead, they raise a fair question about the hazy definition of the American Midwest, a problem that has troubled geographers, cultural geographers, historians and mapmakers for a couple of centuries.

It used to be easier. A person could say that the Midwest was represented by the teams of the Big Ten. But then they added Nebraska, which was a stretch to the west and then Penn State, a stretch to the east. When they became the Big 14 by taking on Rutgers (in New Jersey, for cryin’ out loud) and Maryland, well, that just blew apart the whole damn thing.

Still, you might say that the Midwest is the states of the original (and true and righteous) Big Ten. That would be Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.

I think that still holds up pretty well, but here’s the thing. Have you ever been to southern Illinois, Indiana or Ohio? Those places feel much more Southern or Appalachian. They feel like they have a lot more in common with Kentucky or West Virginia than with Chicago or South Bend or Cleveland.

Colin Woodard’s map of his 11 American nations.

In fact, there’s a fascinating book called American Nations by journalist Colin Woodard that tries to put a finer point on it. Woodard looks at America through its history, settlement patterns and cultural geography to identify 11 distinct “nations,” which he describes as tribes of people who share similar values and identities.

Woodard doesn’t even use the term “Midwest.” Instead he places the Upper Midwest — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and the very northern portions of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio — in a region he dubs “Yankeedom.” That region actually extends all the way out to New England. Coincidentally, it matches up pretty well with a region scientists are suggesting will best weather the blows of climate change. (See last week’s Midwest essay.)

The rest of that Big Ten region ends up in the “Midlands” or “Greater Appalachia.”

I found Woodard’s analysis pretty persuasive. In fact, I write this morning from Madison, a town settled by Yankees. And I find that the traits that Woodard assigns to the citizens of Yankeedom also hold up pretty well: hard-working, frugal, earnest, egalitarian and a little bit on the serious and preachy side. Think Unitarians.

Some have suggested “Great Lakes Region” and I like that too. But that comes with its own problems. New York and Pennsylvania border the Great Lakes. Do we want them in our special club? And, if you want to get technical about it, most of Wisconsin isn’t in a Great Lakes basin. Madison is well outside of it. Even up in Watersmeet, Michigan, where we have a little lake cabin, the water flows in three directions: to Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and to the Mississippi River. In fact, this is why it’s called Watersmeet, although to be precise the waters don’t meet there because they don’t flow into the region so much as out of it to those three watersheds. But Watersdispersed just doesn’t have a good ring to it.

So, for my purposes, when I write about the Midwest I’m not going to get too hung up on any one definition of what it is. No matter how anybody defines it, Wisconsin ends up smack dab in the middle of it. We cannot get out of the Midwest no matter how we might try. It wouldn’t work to bolt the Big Ten, join the SEC and declare ourselves part of the Sun Belt. Nice try for marketing purposes, but nobody would buy it. We put the mid in Midwest.

Welcome to Midwest, a regular Sunday morning feature here at YSDA, where we explore what’s good about the center. Want to read more about why it’s good to be in the middle? Pick up a copy of Light Blue: How center-left moderates can build an enduring Democratic majority.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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