Imagined Heartland

Milking time at the Rader farm, Knoxville, Illinois
Milking time at the Rader farm, Knoxville, IllinoisChicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Company
Ontario Heartland
Ontario Heartland"Photo71" [Flickr member]
ADM soybean mill, Decatur, Illinois, April 2007
ADM soybean mill, Decatur, Illinois, April 2007Higbie, Tobias

This essay offers six thematic approaches to the history of the region we often call the “Heartland.”  Taken together they suggest the varied images of the region over time, and the varied experiences of its inhabitants.  But first, let’s explore when and why central North America became known as “America’s Heartland.”

The U.S. Census Bureau declared the frontier of settlement closed by 1890, but the term “Heartland” was not regularly applied to the American Midwest until the late 20th century.  Coined by a British geographer Halford MacKinder in 1904, the term “heartland” originally referred to the land-locked regions of Eurasia, which he believed were important to the international balance of military powers.  The term gained fame in World War II when Germany used MacKinder’s ideas to justify its expansion into Eastern Europe, and after the war people used “heartland” to refer to places on almost every continent.

Slowly journalists, businesspeople, and politicians started calling the Midwestern U.S. the “American Heartland.”  At times, the term denoted the region’s strategic role as a center of population and industrial production.  But over time, the term more frequently evoked a particular image of the region associated with farms and small towns, rather than its busy and diverse urban areas.  By the time it became a popular term for the region, especially after the 1980s, writers used “Heartland” to capture the idea that Midwesterners were more stable, cautious, and traditional than folks in other regions. 

Of course, this is only the latest image makeover for a region that Europeans considered practically the ends of the Earth when they arrived in the 1600s.  When the era of European settlement drew to a close in the late 19th century, Americans formulated a set of ideas about the history of the region as a frontier.  A century later as the industries and cities of central North America suffered from economic decline and political eclipse, the region quickly earned the nickname Rustbelt to distinguish it from the newly powerful Sunbelt of the American South and Southwest. 

Amidst this decline, various people promoted the idea of the rural and small-town Midwest as America’s Heartland.  For journalists writing about factory closings it was a convenient way to frame human-interest stories. For Hollywood filmmakers the Heartland hit the right sentimental marketing notes. And for conservative political activists, the idea of the Heartland captured the moral and political high ground in their struggle against liberalism. When the economic boom of the 1990s spread housing subdivisions farther than ever into the countryside, more suburbanites could imagine themselves as backyard farmers. The modern meaning of Heartland took hold.  A time and place created by globalization but imagined as timeless, a consciously promoted landscape of forgetting.