A History of Midwestern Humility

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Farmer and wife at the Tri-County Farmers Co-op Market

The people of the American Midwest are proud of their humility. This is a paradox that we shall overlook, the way they beam in the soft glow of adjectives like humble, modest, earnest, down to earth, and salt of the earth. The Midwestern disposition is often likened to earthiness. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the term ‘Midwest’ has been circulating since the 1880s to refer to twelve agriculture-intensive states in the center of America. Another term often applied to this region is ‘the heartland.’ Again, the connection between body and earth.

And such earth it is! A vivid green-tan landscape of low rolling terrain from the interior to the great plains, endless fields of grain in a humid continental climate perfect for farming and one day making airplanes, robots, and pharmaceuticals. When Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, etc. were seized and settled in the blurry sepia days of the 1840s, its new residents believed they had discovered the promised land. Everybody was proud of their their wise decision to abandon the urban heat and noise of the eastern seaboard in favor of gentle hills, quiet prairies, and long sunsets.

Some will tell you that Midwestern modesty is rooted in an agrarian Christian philosophy, particular the ‘redemption through labor’ Protestant strain. The regional newspapers and literature of the mid-1800s, however, reveal a different story. Headlines trumpeted the ‘Good Fortune of Living in Heaven Today on Earth’ and pamphlets and broadsheets carried titles such as The Superior Free Place and We are the Center of the World. When plotting the first transcontinental railroad in 1873, Cornelius Vanderbilt insisted on bypassing the Midwest. “They are of insufferable character,” he wrote in his journal, “forever boasting about their natural bounty and roomy households.” His advisers pored over numerous maps and prepared a forty-three page report detailing the impossibility of laying track from Philadelphia to San Francisco without passing through at least some of the Midwest. Few outsiders wanted to buy their corn, soybeans, oats, processed beef, and other commodities from the Midwest, for this often required enduring a lecture from the seller about why the Midwest was truly the land of Providence. Rumor has it that even John Pierpont Morgan wanted little to do with the region, unable to tolerate their ‘provincial arrogance’. Hence the number of state-owned banks, local credit unions, and farmers’ co-operatives.

By 1880, the economy of the Midwest region was a shambles. Enter William Francis Russell, a sturdy little schoolteacher who penned a long essay called The Revolt Against Pride which was soon republished in pamphlet form as The Modesty Manual. It begins: “We believe our history is a preparation for the magnificent era of which we Midwesterners are the salt and summit, yet we must live the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, who instructs to keep ourselves within our bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to the will of God.” He provides a list of steps to achieve humility: “Discuss your faults, never your virtues. Serve others. Go last. Happily work longer hours.”

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer responded to Russell with perhaps one of his most famous essays, published in Parerga and Paralipomena: “What is modesty but hypocritical humility, by means of which a man seeks to obtain pardon for merits from those who have none.” And drawing blood with his pen, Schopenhaeur concluded: “No doubt, when Russell says modesty is a virtue, it is a very advantageous thing for the fools; for everybody is expected to speak of himself as if he were one.” Devastated, Russell never wrote again. The Modesty Manual, however, quickly became a staple text in primary schools, church groups, and town meetings.

Paraphrasing F. Scott Fitzgerald, who hailed from Minnesota, the attitude of the Midwest began to change gradually and then suddenly. Business improved dramatically and the region was known as ‘the breadbasket of America’, feeding the nation and promising a more relaxed way of life. The phrase ‘aw shucks’ was introduced in 1951 by an Indiana farmer who appeared on Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now, its origin stemming from ‘shucks’ as late-19th century slang for something valueless, e.g. ‘not worth shucks’. Today the flat and unassuming speech of the Midwest is considered by many to be ‘standard’ American English, preferred by most national radio and television broadcasters.