Robert Wuthnow


On his book Remaking the Heartland: Middle America since the 1950s

Cover Interview of April 26, 2011

The wide angle

At the end of the American Civil War, tens of thousands of pioneer families took Horace Greeley’s advice to “go West.”  Streaming across the Mississippi, they settled in Iowa and Missouri, went south into Arkansas, north to Minnesota, west into Kansas and Nebraska and the Dakotas, and eventually into Oklahoma.

For decades, these Middle West states constituted America’s heartland.  It was here that entrepreneurs planted corn and wheat, raised families, built schools and churches, and organized small towns.

But in recent decades, the action has arguably shifted away from the heartland.  New York Times columnist Timothy Egan expressed the prevailing view a few years ago in his award-winning book, The Worst Hard Time.  From his visit to the Middle West, Egan concluded that towns were collapsing, entire counties were populated by the old and dying, and the only growth industries were pigs and prisons.  Others suggested that the region might as well again become a vast “buffalo commons.”

U.S. Census figures demonstrated the region’s decline.  Between 1980 and 2000, 62 percent of the Middle West’s 5,500 towns lost population.  In North Dakota, 83 percent did.  And that trend has continued.  Figures from the 2010 Census show that 58 percent of the Middle West’s towns have fewer people than they did a decade ago.

But it was having been raised in the Middle West that eventually drew me to write Remaking the Heartland.

In previous books, I examined social change in a wide variety of other contexts—from Western Europe during industrialization in the nineteenth century to American cities experiencing immigration in the twentieth century.  For this research, I visited dozens of towns, did scores of personal interviews, and analyzed reams of statistics.  And I wrote the book with the general reader in mind.

The story begins in Lebanon, Kansas, a town near the exact center of the 48 U.S. contiguous states.  Lebanon has fewer than 300 residents—and a fascinating history that includes Indian battles, Populists, Prohibitionists, outlaws, preachers, song writers, journalists, and even a visit by Horace Greeley.

I describe how folks are faring a few miles away in Smith Center, the county seat that has one of the most successful football teams in the country.

From there, I invite readers to tour with me through parts of Nebraska where Buffalo Bill once organized his Wild West extravaganzas, through places in South Dakota and Missouri where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived, and to a town in Iowa where Mary Ingalls went to school.

Returning to Kansas, I examine the huge meat processing industry’s impact on Garden City, describe a community in Oklahoma that is hoping to build a commercial space port, and then turn to the spectacular growth that is taking place around some of the region’s largest cities.

The people who live in these communities, small and large, give a voice to the changes in farming, immigration, the oil and gas industry, military bases, colleges and universities, and new high-tech industries that are reshaping the region.

The statistical information casts doubt on many of the ideas propounded in standard sociological theory.

Urbanization, for instance, was far more complicated than simply a linear shift from farms to cities.  There was extraordinary migration in both directions.  In the 1950s, when the farm population declined at its steepest, the decline was by no means driven only by the lure of lucrative off-farm jobs.

Or take this other example.  Higher education is certainly an important asset in training young people to be good citizens and in giving them the skills to advance in their careers, but it is also a major factor in uprooting them from their communities.

At the same time, the evidence confirms arguments from other studies.  It shows the importance of social networks in explaining immigration, and demonstrates why community involvement is often greater in small towns than in cities.  It shows that early settlers were right when they fought about the location of county seats and railroads or devoted themselves to founding colleges.  The long-term effects of those decisions are still evident.  So are the effects of decisions about the location of military bases, air fields, and interstate highways.