by Doctor Science
One of the topics that's come up in several recent conversations around here is the term "Heartland": what parts of the US are the Heartland? How loaded is the term? Who uses it and why? ... etc.
A quest! First, I went over to Google ngrams to see how the word has been used in American English:
The hits before 1900 are either proper (fictional) names, or typos/scannos.
The blip around 1919 is about the book Democratic Ideals and Realities, by English geographer H. J. Mackinder, which advanced his Heartland Theory. Mackinder called central Asia and Russia, from roughly the Volga to the Yangtze, the "Heartland" of Eurasia and Africa (together making up the "World-Island"), and said:
Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;Basically, he was talking about The Great Game.
who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;
who rules the World-Island commands the world.
Mackinder's theory, and the word "Heartland", languished until World War II. Or, I should say, it languished in the English-speaking world. Mackinder's work greatly influenced the German geographer (and ex-General) Karl Haushofer and his student Rudolf Hess. Through Hess, Mackinder's "Heartland" theory became a crucial element in Mein Kampf and later Nazi geopolitics.
After the U.S. entered WWII -- and especially after Operation Barbarossa began -- the Heartland theory became news. Mackinder's book was reprinted by the National Defense University Press, and the concept of the "Heartland" was explained in popular publications like Newsweek and Life, and in Frank Capra's propaganda film The Nazis Strike.
Within a few years after the end of WWII, "the Heartland" no longer meant central Eurasia: in American usage, it almost always referred to the Midwest.
A few years ago, historian Toby Higbie did a little research on how the Midwest became "the heartland", and found that the term was picked up by various centennials, booster organizations, and midwestern regional publications: "it was part of a vaguer discourse on regional culture that emerged just as the Middle West was reaching the apex of its national influence."
That influence declined in the 1970s and later -- absolutely, as manufacturing started losing ground, and relatively, as the West Coast boomed and as air conditioning made the South more attractive. As this happened, the idea of the "Heartland" became associated ever more with soft-focus nostalgia.
When I look at records from before WWII, the only use of "Heartland" to mean "the American Midwest" is from the 1933 work Man's Adaptation of Nature: Studies of the Cultural Landscape by Patrick Bryan:
We have here a somewhat different America from that commonly depicted. It is this widespreading corn land of the Middle West which is the true heartland of America. Here we have an independent, prosperous body of farmers, farming what is probably the finest land in the world under climatic conditions which, with any sort of decent activity, make heavy yields inevitable.Notably, Bryan was not American -- he was English, a geography professor at University College, Leicester. It's quite possible that he was familiar with the word "Heartland" from Mackinder, and seamlessly applied it to the American Midwest.
I decided it was time to go to the headwaters of American geographic history: Frederick Jackson Turner's The Frontier in American History. Bingo: Turner, writing about the Ohio Valley and the Midwest, calls is "a home for six mighty States, now in the heart of the nation, rich in material wealth, richer in the history of American democracy". And he cites Theodore Roosevelt from 1893 (not yet a politician of national significance, but a prominent historian), who said, to the Wisconsin Historical Society:
I almost wish I had chosen as a title "The Heart of Our County", for I am speaking of the old Northwest, not of the new Northwest in the Rocky Mountains and on the Pacific Slope, but of what was the Northwest at the beginning of this century, of the states that have grown up around the Great Lakes and in the Valley of the Upper Mississippi, [are] the states which are destined to be the greatest, the richest, the most prosperous of all the great, rich, and prosperous commonwealths which go to make up the mightiest republic the world has ever seen. These states . . . form the heart of the country geographically, and they will soon become the heart in population and in political and social importance. . . . I should be sorry to think that before these states there loomed a future of material prosperity merely. I regard this section of the country as the heart of true American sentiment.
Clearly the idea that the Midwest is the "heart" of the U.S. was already circulating in the 1890s -- at a time, mind you, when some of these states had been states for only about 50 years. I haven't been able to get more evidence of how the idea was used -- "heart" is too common a word, while the heart of America tends (in the 19th and early 20th century) to be a synonym for "the spirit of America", especially when the subject is the US entry into the World Wars.
Since the idea of the "Heartland" was so important in Germany in the first half of the 20th century, I decided to look back using Google's German corpus. Pay dirt:
"Herzland" was far more significant in 19th-c Germany than "Heartland" was in 19th-c Britain. When I looked at the context, most uses seem to be talking about Germany as "the Heartland of Europe", writing in the years leading up to German unification.
And then I found Beiträge zum geographischen Unterricht ("Contributions to geographic studies") 1856, by Rudolf Nagel, who seems to have been a secondary-school teacher in Remscheid. I say "seems" because my German is very rusty and the book is of course printed in Fraktur, which strains my comprehension to its limit (and beyond).
To my imperfect understanding, he seems to be saying that the "Heartland" of a nation is properly in the geographic center, and that German immigration to the U.S. was creating an American Heartland in the Midwest that reflected (or duplicated) the "Heartland of Europe", which is Germany. I invite -- nay, beg! -- readers with better knowledge of German to tell me more.
Nagel was a very minor figure, and I suspect he wasn't saying anything terribly groundbreaking here. The idea that Germany is the Heartland of Europe, and should be unified the better to take its proper place among the nations (i.e. first), seems to have been widespread in the years before unification. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it influenced Mackinder, whether he acknowledged it or not.
I also doubt that it's coincidence that Roosevelt talked about the Midwest as "the heart of the nation" when he was in Wisconsin, a state with a very large German population (including my grandfather's family). There's a suspicious amount of overlap between where German-Americans ended up and the states we tend to call "the Heartland":
At the same time, these "Heartland" states were not filling up with English, Welsh and "British Americans", even though these were native speakers of English, resident in North America for many generations. Why would Roosevelt say that a people with shallower roots in America (than, e.g., the British Americans of New England) were "the heart of true American sentiment"?
If someone's looking for a project in American history, it might be worthwhile to look at German-language newspapers in the U.S., and find out if they regularly called the Midwest "Das Herz" or "Das Herzland" of America. Were Roosevelt and Turner using a turn of phrase that was already familiar to German-Americans? Was thinking of the Midwest as "the Heartland" something that started with German immigrants, and eventually became part of national-level thinking?