Ask the Author | Jon Lauck

Author and UI alum Jon Lauck spoke at Prairie Lights last Sunday on his new book, “The Good Country: A History of the American Midwest.” The historian is extremely connected to the study of the Midwest’s history and culture — Lauck founded the Midwestern History Association in 2014, and also launched the academic journal “Middle Midwest Review.”


Photo contributed by Jon Luack

Parker Jones, Arts Editor

Author and historian Jon Lauck received his doctorate from the University of Iowa in 1997. He has strong ties to the Iowa City area and the Midwest as a whole. He grew up on a farm in South Dakota and graduated from South Dakota State University in 1993. He has written several books on the Midwest, including “The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History” and “From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism.” Lauck gave a talk on Jan. 29 about his newest book, “The Good Country: A History of the American Midwest” at Prairie Lights.

The Daily Iowan: What inspired you to write about and curate the history of the Midwest?

Jon Lauck: Well, I’ve been working on Midwestern topics for a long time. My dissertation at the University of Iowa was about the problem of concentration and meat packer power in farm markets because I grew up on a farm, a little farm in South Dakota. Not that many people can say that anymore. It makes me seem sort of old, but I just got interested in that. I also studied European history and stuff, but it just was very clear that not enough was being done to study the region around us. We have a million histories of the American South, and the history of the American West was like a huge field and still is, but no one was studying the American Midwest. Even people at places like the University of Wisconsin and University of Michigan and University of Minnesota, and really not much at University of Iowa either, which is something I was critical of.

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So, I thought we need to fill this big yawning gap in our history, and long story short, there’s a lot of water under the bridge we can skip over. But I ended up creating the Midwestern History Association in 2014, and along with that, launching an academic journal called Middle Midwest Review that I’m now the editor of. You can find it online right through the usual big databases. The University of Nebraska Press publishes it and did a bunch of projects in between, like various books on the Midwest, but there wasn’t a history of the region, so many years ago I went to work trying to construct a history. So, if people want to have some basic understanding of the region, now they have one thing they can go to. They’ve got this book they can pick up in their hands and get a sense of the place.

DI: What advice would you have for aspiring writers or historians?

 Lauck: I would say they need to look around. The history is right here in our own neighborhood — in our own county. I think we’ve lost touch with that in the middle of the country, and we need to create our own. There used to be a movement.  It’s called regionalism, cultural regionalism, and the idea was to promote local writers and local historians, and local news. I mean there used to be huge newspapers in the Midwest like The Des Moines Register and The Chicago Tribune. The Des Moines Register used to sell 500,000 copies of their Sunday paper. Let that sink in a little bit. I mean, it used to be a major institution here in Iowa, in the Midwest. But, unfortunately, now that source of news has collapsed for a lot of reasons we don’t need to get into, but we end up just imbibing national culture and mass culture and culture created in Hollywood and New York, and we can create our own. There’s a lot of smart, creative people in Iowa City, and they should be contributing to this regionalist movement, I think.