This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend the OAH annual meeting in Philadelphia. It was my first time at OAH, and it proved to be a remarkably fruitful space for conversations and collaboration that will undoubtedly inform my future work.
Aside from my own panel, when I rolled into Philadelphia, I was most excited about hearing Kristen Hoganson’s talk at the SHGAPE luncheon: “Globality and the Rural Midwest.” Her lecture was based on her book, The Heartland: An American History, which comes out later this month. Internationalism and the rural Midwest is my intellectual sweet spot, and I’m always eager to engage with folks who are working on these particular questions. To be honest, while Midwestern history has been experiencing renewed attention over past few years, those of us who work at the intersection of internationalism and the rural Midwest are still a pretty small bunch.
The talk was excellent, as you would expect. I listened with rapt attention as she talked about crop and livestock catalogues and the global influences on husbandry, crop development, and engagement with international markets. I recognize that this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it most certainly is mine. Having just read Daniel Immerwahr’s chapter on U.S. imperialism and the unquenchable demand for guano fertilizers in the nineteenth century, her talk perfectly aligned with many of the themes currently informing my research. Hoganson presented a clear picture of how animals on farms, seeds in the ground, and trading partners built international networks that informed the global vision of rural folks in the Midwest during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.
What struck me most about her lecture was how her work tracked international networks in ways that differed markedly from my own research. My approach focuses on intellectual and religious history while hers emphasizes agricultural and economic history. The networks we uncover overlap in crucial ways, but our methodological approaches significantly influence the networks we examine.
Hoganson showcased crops and livestock with origins from throughout the globe that made their way to the Midwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She convincingly argued that the farms and pastures of the rural Midwest were manifestations of international engagement.
The international world that I study in my work in intellectual and religious history features different figures and highlights different elements of the broader narrative of a global Midwest. Instead of crops and livestock, I find myself studying Dutch-language newspapers, educational curricula, and church records.
The narrative that I examine focuses on the networks that connected the rural Midwest to sites in the Netherlands, South Africa, China, Indonesia, Caribbean islands, and Suriname. It is full of research into how people thought of themselves, presented themselves, and pursued Christian missions throughout the world.
Most striking to me, perhaps, is the chronological differences between our projects.
We overlap in the late nineteenth century, but my own research begins in the early nineteenth century, at the latest. But, just yesterday, I spent a few hours pondering the origins of the imperial imagination of a community of Dutch immigrants in rural Michigan and ended up exploring its roots in colonial conquests in the early 1600s in places like Taiwan, Indonesia, and South Africa. While the community’s connection to seventeenth-century intellectual and religious imperialism will be a short aside in the larger project, I realized one of the joys (and at times frustrations) of tracing intellectual networks is untangling the distant origins of later beliefs and practices.
Agricultural and intellectual history find an important overlap in these two projects, demonstrating that there are multiple ways to employ an international lens when thinking through the experiences of rural Midwesterners and rural folks in general.
The farmer who bought a hog bred to incorporate bloodlines from Chinese and European breeds might have sold that same animal at market and used that money to support a missionary doing work in the Middle East. That same individual may have immigrated to the Midwest from Europe, bringing with him or her an imperialist imagination that easily reconciled the displacement of the prairie’s native populations in order to grow corn and wheat developed through crosspollination of crop varieties developed in South America and Europe.
These examples demonstrate just a few of the ways that internationalism might have manifested in rural history. They also illuminate how different approaches to studying rural spaces create a more nuanced understanding of rural internationalism.
For me, Hoganson’s talk highlighted important ways that internationalism manifested in the rural Midwest during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. More generally, it brought into focus the opportunities for fruitful dialogue between intellectual history and agricultural history. Together these two approaches provide a more complete picture of the extent to which rural communities engaged with international concerns. Communities that seemed to be isolated enclaves not only contributed to international missions and paid attention to imperialistic expansion, but they also planted crops that relied on genetic material from throughout the globe and relied on international markets to sell their products. Markets and missions, husbandry and homesteads. All of it contributed to the formation of a global rural Midwest.