America’s Heartland: Middle Colonies, Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest

In my post about Okies, I considered a factor that few know about or understand. Here is a small part of what I explained:

Midwestern culture has become so widespread in American society that it is almost invisible. Midwestern English, specifically in the area centered in and directly surrounding Iowa, became Standard American English which is to say that when someone of this region speaks it is perceived as there having no accent. Ronald Reagan became the great conservative leader from California was born in western Illinois which is part of the region of Standard American English. It was because of Midwesterners such as Reagan that Midwestern English became so common in Hollywood (and so common on nationally broadcast radio and television); by the way, John Wayne also came from this region, having been born in Iowa. This invisibility of Midwestern culture goes along with the invisibility of German-American culture, as the Midwest is the main region where Germans settled and most people don’t realize that there are more Americans of German ancestry than of any other ancestry. Both my parents are largely of German ancestry.

This has been something on my mind for a very long time.

In its most basic form, it relates to an earlier history. The Middle Colonies, as explained by Ned C. Landsman in Crossroads of Empire, helped create a regional culture of multiculturalism that became representative of America in general, despite not being among the earliest of the colonial settlements. This is partly because the population grew there so much faster than in any other region. It was largely because of this fast population growth that the North was able to win the Civil War.

The regional culture of the Middle Colonies had great impact on the Midwest specifically and on the North generally, and because of the Civil War its impact became truly national. The Midwest gets lost in all of this vast history. The regional culture is to Americans as mud is to a mudfish, and it is about as culturally sexy to Americans as is mud.

A big part of this influence was the German immigration. Germans were the single largest group of immigrants in American history (with several large waves of immigration over several centuries), and so they are now the single largest ancestral group of modern Americans.

German culture had a fate not dissimilar to British culture. After the American Revolution, Americans sought to create a new culture independent of that of Britain. After the First World War, Americans also sought to create a new culture independent of that of Germany. There was a nation-wide oppression of all things German which was magnified further with the Second World War. German influences remained, but they became less visible as had the British influences. Both British and German culture have merged almost seamlessly into a general American culture. The influence is there, but few ever notice it or think much about it. It’s just there in the background.

For the first centuries of American history, Germans were a cultural force to be reckoned with. They fiercely defended their culture and large areas of the Midwest were almost entirely German with public schools that taught in German and newspapers that published in German. That American tradition of Germanic culture was almost entirely annihalated in its outward forms. For example, a big reason behind Prohibition was because ethnic groups such as Germans prided themselves on their breweries and loved to drink. There was, however, a revival of German influence after the Second World War when there was a mass immigration of Germans escaping the Nazis, some of them Jews and some of them not but all of them bringing German culture.

So, unlike the English, Germans were able to make a comeback and claim their place as “Real Americans”. The English have always had the taint of oppression from our shared history of war. It is easier to forget and forgive the World Wars in Europe, especially since the Germans who came to America mostly fought on the American side or at least didn’t fight for the enemy (with a few exceptions such as Nazi scientists who came by ‘invitation’, so to speak). However, the British attacked the American colonies (i.e., on American soil) and that is a stigma that will probably remain for as long as the United States continues. The Japanese, likewise, will always have that stigma for Americans.

Nonetheless, Germans have never regained the prominently visible place they once held. Midwestern culture is almost synonymous with German culture, but you wouldn’t know that unless you have closely studied regional history. Even many people living in Midwestern states are oblivious to their own history. In Upper Midwest, they love to celebrate their Scandinavian heritage and yet Scandinavian history is small compared to the German heritage.

Standard American English (or General American) has its origins in the Middle Colonies and the later Mid-Atlantic states, but it didn’t take full form as we know it now until it developed further in a specific region of the Midwest. From there it spread West and through modern mass media became the dominant dialect. It has become so normal of a way of speaking that few notice it, including scholars, when those outside of this small region speak General American.

Walter Cronkite, Ronald Reagan, etc. These were the purveyors of Standard American English and the Midwestern culture that went with it. Interestingly, the purveyors of this have become even more widespread as the influence of the United States has spread. American English and hence Midwestern-originated Standard American English has become the most common form of English taught and spoken in the world, so common that even the BBC has begun to use more American English because its worldwide audience has demanded it.

The same goes for religion. The Methodists of the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest helped create much of modern American Christianity which spread far and wide, even helping to make the South so strongly religious. However, Midwesterners aren’t known for being dogmatically, politically and vocally religious. Ask most people what Christian denominations are most common in a state like Iowa and they couldn’t even guess.

In the Okie post, I went into great detail about religion. I specifically detailed alternative religion and spirituality. The heretical and/or secular thought of modern American society has much of its origins in this same area of Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. New Age spirituality and New Thought Christianity (Prosperity Gospel, as labeled by Evangelicals) have become so widespread that, like Midwestern dialect and German culture, it has become normalized and amorphous. No one thinks of these things as being Midwestern, for sure. Most people probably assume they were created ex nihilo in that crazy state of California on the West Coast, West of the West.

Many don’t know of the massively influential history of socialism that existed down in states such as Oklahoma and up in states such as Wisconsin, both regions influenced by the Midlands culture of the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest as it was carried by the migration patterns going West and then, in the far extent of the Midwest, heading both South and North. Socialism was another popular aspect of German culture and, more generally, Northern European culture. It had been these radical left-wingers during the Populist Era during the 1890s that helped to force the hands of the powerful in eventually creating progressive reform.

This all began with the Quaker colony of William Penn (aka Pennsylvania) along with the Dutch colony of New Netherlands (aka New York). These both introduced a concentrated German influence that was injected into the central regions of early settlements. In time, this influence made itself known in so many ways as to no longer be recognized. It was simply American.

The ancestors of these early settlers, unlike many Appalachians for example, don’t usually identify as ‘American’ on census records and they’ve never tried to force their culture onto the rest of the country. I suppose it was just the fate of history that they ended up having such a powerful impact. And it was the result of being so culturally successful that they were so easily forgotten about.

The Midwest is called the Heartland for reasons beyond it being the center of the most productive farming in the US and in the world. Farming is important and made our country wealthy, but there is a deeper current to why the Midwest captures the American imagination.

It is where Dorothy seeks to return from Oz. It is Superman’s adpted home. It is the future birthplace of Captain Kirk. It is where new things are hoped for and things of the past are longed for. It is a place of renewal. It is where greatnss is seen in the simple. Or so that is how it is seen in the landscape of the American Dream.

It is the Heart of America. A heart that still beats.

2 thoughts on “America’s Heartland: Middle Colonies, Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest

  1. Pingback: Marmalade ~

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