Journal aims to stoke interest in Midwest history

Copies of the Middle West Review
Copies of the Middle West Review are seen at the offices of the University of Nebraska Press in Lincoln, Neb., Friday, Sept. 19, 2014.
Nati Harnik/AP

When T.V. Golden set out to bring a modern irrigation system to parched northwestern Nebraska in the late 19th century, some of the more established settlers objected, fearing that acknowledging the problem would stanch the flow of immigrants who had turned the area into a "young Ireland."

Golden, whose parents were among the thousands of settlers who had fled Ireland's crushing poverty and famine, prevailed, and his irrigation system helped convert the area's arid prairie into the fecund farmland it is today.

The vignette is one of several told in a new journal devoted to the history of the Midwest and Plains -- an area of study that the journal's creators believe has been neglected. The inaugural edition of the Middle West Review went out this week. At 180 pages, it features eight peer-reviewed articles, 18 book reviews and an interview with 94-year-old former University of Wisconsin-Madison history professor Allan Bogue, whom it describes as "the last prairie historian."

The last true Midwest history association, the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, started in 1907 in Lincoln, Nebraska. But it fizzled out in the 1960s and was replaced by the Organization of American Historians, which has no focus on Midwest history. And unlike other regions that have historical journals -- such as the Journal of Southern History or the Western History Association Journal -- it's been decades since there's been a journal dedicated to the history of the Midwest.

When a group of historians intent on reviving the study of contemporary Midwest history gathered in Omaha last spring, among the ideas they came up with was to publish an online journal on a shoestring budget. But the University of Nebraska Press expressed interest in publishing a printed journal, and the group jumped at the chance.

Paul Mokrzycki, a University of Iowa graduate student who is the journal's editor-in-chief, said it will help preserve the region's history and provide a place for young historians to publish their work, which can help them get college tenure, grant funding and even book deals. He also said it's no secret that graduate students are always looking for "the next big thing" when considering dissertation proposals.

"I wouldn't be so bold as to say that we are the new turn, but I would encourage graduate students to think of region and place in new ways -- especially since so many wonderful graduate programs are located in the Midwest," Mokrzycki said. "I would hope that the Middle West Review and this broader project to revive Midwestern history would stimulate people to look out their office windows...because there hasn't been much attention paid to it."

John Miller, a professor emeritus of history at South Dakota State University who contributed to the new journal, said he thinks it "could be huge" in stoking new interest in Midwest history and culture.

"For people like me, who spent 30 years as a practicing historian at the university's important to have outlets for the research that you do, because if you don't have a journal like this that you can contribute to, you're kind of wasting your time," Miller said.

The group behind the journal, the Midwestern History Working Group, is pushing for universities in the Midwest, particularly those in the Big Ten Conference, to make a concerted effort to revive the field.

Jon Lauck, a South Dakota historian who founded the group and serves as an editor of the Middle West Review, noted that although some of those schools offer courses in state or local Native American history, almost none offer courses or fields of study in the broader history of the Midwest.

"For example, the University of Minnesota -- which is a huge institution in the Midwest with some 50 historians in its history department -- has zero people who teach the history of the Midwest," Lauck said. "By contrast, the University of Georgia has 10 people who teach the history of the South and Georgia."

The University of Nebraska pays to produce, market and distribute the journal, and it will reap any profit it might produce.

The $40-per-issue, biannual journal has only 25 subscribers thus far -- mostly Midwestern university libraries. But Joyce Gettman, a spokeswoman for the University of Nebraska Press, said new journals usually see a significant jump in subscribers after the first issues are distributed "and word spreads."