The conceit of Kristin Hoganson’s The Heartland: An American History is that Americans have bought into a myth about the middle of their continent: namely, “that there is a stone-solid core at the center of the nation. Local, insulated, exceptional, isolationist, and provincial; the America of America First, the home of homeland security, the defining essence at the center of the land.” A professor of history at the University of Illinois, Hoganson aims to unpack and deconstruct the myth. She does so by telling the story of Champaign County—her own backyard, so to speak—and revealing the myriad ways in which its people and economy, roughly equidistant from Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis, have been anything but local, insulated, isolated, and provincial.
Her story begins with the Kickapoo people, who had already been displaced from points north and east by the Iroquois when the white settlers arrived in Illinois in the early 19th century. They would soon suffer worse. From Illinois, the Kickapoo were removed to Kansas, and their sad diaspora would take them, in dwindling numbers, to Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Mexico. Meanwhile, the swamps and forests and prairies of Illinois they had left behind would be drained, cleared, and plowed under in short order by the arriving pioneers, who were every bit as nomadic as the Kickapoo: “They came from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan;…from Ontario, England, Scotland, and Ireland; from Switzerland, Hannover, Bavaria, and the Kingdom of Wurtemberg.”
The amber waves of grain that replaced the tallgrass prairie proved ideal for fattening cattle and hogs. They would be exported the world over once the construction of the Illinois Central Railroad in the 1850s—running through Champaign on its way from New Orleans to the shores of Lake Michigan—gave ready access to the burgeoning stockyards of Chicago. From there, Illinois meat would travel, quite literally, to the ends of the earth. “Polar and tropical expeditions alike relied heavily on American bacon and salt pork. And so did the British military,” Hoganson writes about the turn of the 20th century. “The British government looked to American packinghouses to supply Her Majesty’s troops in the Boer War. During the Boxer rebellion, Chicago packers shipped about ten carloads of barreled pork and various beef products to the Far East.”
The Illinois Central Railroad was itself financed, in important part, by bonds sold in London; the steel rails were of British manufacture, many of the workers who laid them were Irish. The most highly prized breeding stock for the local cattle and pigs was imported; prospectors sought useful agricultural seeds and plants in Europe and Asia and Africa. Global supply chains, in other words, are nothing new.
Hoganson terms this trade “ecological un-Americanism,” which I think is supposed to be the kind of coinage academics find witty. And in case you don’t get the point, she hammers it home: “The process of making the midwestern countryside ecologically un-American was hardly isolationist. Nor was it even unilateralist. Although farmers certainly wanted to advance their own competitive advantage through their importations of exogenous plant and animal lines, these importations also fostered cross-border business relationships. By crediting other farmers with domesticating and improving various plants and animals, Illinois farmers acknowledged their indebtedness to agriculturalists elsewhere.”
I’m not sure against whom she’s arguing. American farmers are widely understood, by themselves and by most observers, to be thoroughgoing internationalists and free traders when it comes to increasing their yields, livestock productivity, and access to world markets. In Hoganson’s descriptions of Champaign County, I could recognize many of the features of the Indiana hog farm where I grew up. We had ruddy red Duroc boars (possibly of African lineage) and black and white Poland Chinas, a breed apparently originating not in Poland and not in China but in Ohio. The appellation nonetheless suggests that international provenance was thought to be a plus for marketing purposes. Our sows were Hampshires and Yorkshires, and they nursed their piglets in the shade of Chinese elm trees (we were free-range farmers avant la lettre), feeding on corn enriched with soybean meal, a legume understood to have originated in China. When our corn was badly damaged one year by a blight, the kernels shriveled and moldering and looking like a total loss, we were thrilled to hear a dealer had found a market for the damaged crop, and no less thrilled when we learned—Cold War be damned—that the end market was the Soviet Union.
In all of this, we were no different from our neighbors or from thousands of other farmers across America. In short, the idea that heartland openness to agricultural ideas from abroad, or to trade in foreign products, might somehow be surprising, or counterintuitive, or myth-shattering would make for one of those roadside attractions the Midwest is famous for: The World’s Largest Strawman.
The book is marred by Hoganson’s heavy-handed thesis-mongering. I’m not sure, for instance, how much is proved by the deep involvement of Illinois agriculturalists in sustaining the soldiers and sailors who undergirded the British Empire. Were the 19th-century farmers of Champaign County “agents of empire,” as the author contends, or simply participants in the global economy of the day? The promising plants gathered in Europe and Asia, Hoganson tells us, “journeyed to the United States the same way that bioprospectors had traveled to them: on imperial steamship routes.” Well, yes; they could hardly have traveled any other way.
But the chapter on the 19th-century American mania for the Berkshire pigs produced by aristocratic British breeders is worthy of a state-fair blue ribbon. And Hoganson’s discussion of the expertise brought by thousands of Frisian immigrants fleeing Prussian military service is eye-opening. “Living on the coast of the North Sea,” they “had centuries of experience draining marshlands” and upon reaching the Midwest “purchased the cheapest land on the market: marshy land.” Surveyors in Champaign County had described much of the land as “level wet prairie unfit for cultivation.” But “the Ostfrieslanders saw opportunities below the pondwaters. At least there was no need for dikes to keep the ocean out.…They soon commenced the arduous process of digging ditches, laying tile, and sloping their fields.”
By World War I, these drained swamps “contained some of the most valuable agricultural land in the state.…By 1930, the state had over ten thousand miles of drainage ditches and a hundred fifty thousand miles of tile: enough ditching, noted one commentator, to stretch from Chicago to Outer Mongolia, enough tiling to circle the earth six times.” Now that’s interesting.
The myth Hoganson tilts against in her history of the American heartland is, in sum, nowhere near as powerful or pervasive as she contends—at least not to those of us who actually come from there.