Out There

In the new print issue of NR, Travis Kavulla, a former NR editor who has fled to Montana, has an excellent review of Jon Lauck’s Prairie Republic: The Political Culture of Dakota Territory, 1879-1889. Lauck’s book is another rejoinder to Thomas Frank’s condescending view of a Midwest he doesn’t understand any better than most Eastern liberals.

Lauck, an aide to Sen John Thune, understands it extremely well, and so does his reviewer. Here’s a chunk of Kavulla:

Even before Congress deigned to recognize Dakota as two states — with the north the more barren, railroad-dominated locale — a vibrant civic society had developed in what became South Dakota. It was a place dominated by small landholders who distrusted Washington and hated the territorial spoils system, who were devoted to their churches and civic organizations, and who obsessed about synthesizing “the organic law” of the soon-to-be state. By the late 1880s, Dakota Territory had less illiteracy than any New England state, and more newspapers were published there, per capita, than almost anywhere else in America.

The ignorant, gun-slinging, oligarch-controlled West is not what Dakota looked like. The settlers named their towns after Virgil and Seneca. They read Tennyson, Pope, Byron. Such classical education did not, as today, destine young Dakotans for a life in academia. No, this was preparation for a life that took seriously the hard toil of the farm and the grave work of self-government.

Government is such a behemoth in the modern United States that the vast majority of citizens expect all of its institutions to work smoothly without their mundane attentions. Today, more than ever, “self-government” has come to mean merely that we are a people who vote and elect whom we care to. The definition was much broader and more demanding in Dakota Territory. There, self-government meant something closer to what Tocqueville had observed in the Ohio River Valley, which was in many respects repackaged by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who spoke of the yeoman farmer as cultivating not just a small landholding but a civil society on which he and his neighbors relied.

By the early 1900s, the plains had already begun the slow process of depopulation that many modern visitors mistake for decay. It’s not. Depopulation in Detroit is decay. In the Dakotas, it’s just life with agriculture. Anyway, great stuff. Subscribe to the magazine. Buy the very excellent book. Go west.

Denis Boyles — Dennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...