U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Internationalism and the Rural Midwest from Two Perspectives: Intersections Between Intellectual and Agricultural History

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.

9 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I happen to have a compilation replete with titles that speak in one way or another, directly and indirectly, to “agriculture and intellectual history,” “intellectual history and agricultural history,” and “rural internationalism,” although my motivating concerns revolve around normatively generated moral, political, economic, agricultural, and environmental (including ecological) questions more broadly, so they extend geographically and topically outside the “rural Midwest and internationalism.” Nonetheless, perhaps you and those interested in these subjects might find some titles worthy of your academic diligence and intellectual attention. The bibliography is titled “Beyond Capitalist Agribusiness: Toward Agroecology & Food Justice,” and is found here: https://www.academia.edu/12376054/Beyond_Capitalist_Agribusiness_Toward_Agroecology_and_Food_Justice_A_Basic_Bibliography

    • Thanks so much for your comment and your interest, Patrick. You are most certainly right to highlight to rich ground here for collaboration between these two particular subfields. Work like Sven Beckert’s, which appears in your bibliography, is really a substantial text that informs many of our broader conversations about agriculture, business, and global networks.

      I have also, at times, found it fruitful to have conversations with folks who do embrace a more normative approach, though I do not do so in my own work as a historian. I took classes with Norman Wirzba while earning my master’s degree and read plenty of Wendell Berry during my master’s program. Ultimately, I found our methodological differences and different aims regarding normative statements led our work in different directions, but the conversations themselves could be quite useful at times.

      And, you’re also very right to highlight the importance of non-Midwestern states. While the Midwest, as a region rather than individual states, continues to outpace other regions of the nation, even most farmers that I know in places like Iowa and Minnesota recognize the significance of states like California and Texas for the nation’s agricultural output. As we study the history of agriculture, we certainly don’t do so with a myopic focus on the Midwest, though my personal research happens to focus there. To that end, I’ve found the Agricultural History Society reflects those realities. As I was preparing for the AHS annual meeting in June, I was truly impressed with the diversity of projects, including the entirety of the United States and numerous internationally focused sessions.

      Thanks for your comments and the resource recommendation. Much appreciated.

      • Andrew,
        One more item and I’ll get out of the way: If you’ve not seen it, you might want to check out the Agricultural Law Blog, which is now moribund, but one can read the most recent posts from last year (by yours truly) as well as browse through the archives. I blogged there (beginning in 2015) at the invitation of Jim (James M.) Chen,* attorney and professor of law at Michigan State University. Jim is the founder of the Jurisdynamics Network of blogs, which includes Ratio Juris, where I still blog. http://aglaw.blogspot.com/

        * “Professor Chen is a highly productive and influential scholar whose works spans topics such as administrative law, agricultural law, constitutional law, economic regulation, environmental law, industrial policy, legislation, and natural resources law. He is the coauthor of Disasters and the Law: Katrina and Beyond (Aspen Publishers, 2006), the first book to provide comprehensive coverage of the legal issues surrounding natural disaster.”

      • Thanks so much for the reference to this resource, Patrick. Much appreciated.

  2. Incidentally, while we understandably associate agriculture in the U.S. with the Midwest, it often goes unnoticed that California, where I live, is the top agricultural producer in the country, with roughly 11% of total agricultural cash receipts.

  3. Andrew, you’ve really intrigued me about “the origins of the imperial imagination of a community of Dutch immigrants in rural Michigan and… its roots in colonial conquests in the early 1600s in places like Taiwan, Indonesia, and South Africa.” Can you say more about what you found? Did they view indigenous peoples similarly? Or see their colonization of Michigan as a continuation of earlier Dutch colonial projects? I’d really like to know more!

    • Hi Andy:

      Thanks so much for the question. I’m still in the early stages of pulling on this particularly thread, but what I’ve found is that there is a sense of familiarity and comfort with imperialism among Dutch immigrants in the nineteenth century. It isn’t a novel idea to expand across the globe through trade and religion because they’ve been doing it for centuries. For me, understanding that their worldview was one that was very much informed by global imperialism has helped to understand 1) how really isolated communities could see themselves as significant players on a global stage and 2) how they could see new settlements built within the United States as connected to a broader Dutch Empire, even if they acknowledged they now lived in a different nation.

      One specific connection to these early imperial outposts in Asia that I’m currently developing is the treatment of native populations. For instance, when the Dutch arrived in Taiwan and declared sovereignty, they didn’t want to settle the island with Dutch people but instead encouraged Chinese men and women from the Fujian province to immigrate to the island (against the Chinese emperor’s wishes). The Dutch would be in charge, the Chinese would provide the labor, and inevitably Taiwan’s indigenous populations would be displaced. Eventually, the Chinese immigrants themselves rose up and overthrew the Dutch in 1662, but to my point, there was a model in Dutch history for multi-national imperialism built largely at the expense of native populations. I’m seeing a similar dynamic take place in several places that I’m studying in the Midwest except in this case the U.S. is the sovereign power much like the Dutch were initially in Taiwan and the Dutch themselves are the immigrants whose settlement and development of the land helped to displace native populations. I don’t think the Dutch ever expected to overthrow the U.S. like the Chinese did to them in Taiwan; however, it’s striking to me that there are such clear similarities between these moments that, if nothing else, gave the Dutch an example from their own history that demonstrates how multi-national imperialism could work. At the same time, these parallels also anchor Dutch persecution and exploitation of native populations in their own centuries of empire building.

      These are just some initial thoughts on these connections with quite a bit more digging to do, but it’s a pretty good glimpse at some of the fruit I’ve been able to gather from this line of inquiry at this point. Thanks for the question and the opportunity to tease some of this out a bit further.

      • Thanks, Andrew! That is really fascinating, and I hope you share further research about this! Would you see the Cape Colony in southern Africa as another example of this multinational imperialism–not directly analogous, but perhaps another model that the Dutch immigrants in the Midwest may have drawn on?

      • Andy,

        I think you’re right, and there is another model with the Cape Colony. For instance, I know that the Dutch who settled in the Midwest paid close attention to the happenings in South Africa, even after it passed into British hands. In the late nineteenth century, for example, there was extensive coverage of the Boer War in these rural Midwestern Dutch communities with these Dutch immigrants strongly identifying with the Boers.

        Admittedly, I haven’t looked into the Dutch colonies in Africa as much as I have looked into their Asian expansion, but I do have clear evidence that the Cape Colony and the continual presence of Dutch-descended communities in the country figured into these Midwestern Dutch immigrants’ global imagination. Thanks for the comments! I appreciate the interest!

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S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.