Stories of Midwestern Boys Who Shaped America
John E. Miller
We live these days in a virtual nation of cities and celebrities, dreaming a small-town America rendered ever stranger by purveyors of nostalgia and dark visionaries from Sherwood Anderson to David Lynch. And yet it is the small town, that world of local character and neighborhood lore, that dreamed the America we know today—and the small-town boy, like those whose stories this book tells, who made it real.
In these life-stories, beginning in 1890 with frontier historian Frederick Jackson Turner and moving up to the present with global shopkeeper Sam Walton, a history of middle America unfolds, as entrepreneurs and teachers like Henry Ford, George Washington Carver, and Walt Disney; artists and entertainers like Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Carl Sandburg, and Johnny Carson; political figures like William McKinley, William Jennings Bryan, and Ronald Reagan; and athletes like Bob Feller and John Wooden by turns engender and illustrate the extraordinary cultural shifts that have transformed the Midwest, and through the Midwest, the nation—and the world.
“This book would make an excellent addition to collections that focus on region and boyhood, as well as to collections with an emphasis on twentieth-century American culture.”
—Great Plains Quarterly
“Miller has crafted an expertly researched, well-written, and scholarly volume of biographies of twenty-two individuals whose formative years were in the Midwest”
—Journal of Illinois HistorySee all reviews...
“The stories are well told and engagingly written, and the notion of exploring the connection between America’s small-town past and its urban present is well worthwhile.”
—Michigan Historical Review
“A deeply-researched and brilliantly-conceived account of the small town experiences of a series of Midwesterners whose names many over-50 readers will instantly recall.”
—Claremont Review of Books
“[Miller] shows both the cultural shifts that have changed the Midwest (and along with it, the nation) and the persistent, shaping power of place on individuals and the national consciousness.”
“The essays are well researched, detailed, and strongly written to create a clear sense of the effect that this peculiar sort of American place had on a given man.”
—Annals of Iowa
“In a wonderfully readable compilation of distinguished biographies. . . Miller documents the shifts that emptied Main Street throughout the Midwest, . . . [with] the stories of men whose childhoods were spent in the small towns all of them left behind, but some of them never left spiritually. Miller's Small-Town Dreams is a museum of big men from small towns.”
—Books and Culture
“This book represents a new and imaginative reconception of the American experience. . . . Especially noteworthy is the emphasis on material culture.”
—David M. Katzman, author of Seven Days a Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America
“Small towns are an important part of Americana, not only because 30 million people live in them, but also because we hear so often that they are the ‘real America’ where homespun virtue still prevails. Miller’s book unpacks that mythology, showing its manifestations in the lives of small town boys who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and made good. I look forward to a sequel about small town girls!”
—Robert Wuthnow, author of Small-Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future
“In Small-Town Dreams John Miller ably illustrates the importance of small towns in American history and culture through a gallery of portraits of prominent figures born and raised in them—all going to show you can take the boy out of the town but not the town out of the boy.”
—Richard Lingeman, Senior Editor of The Nation and author of Small Town America and biographies of Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis
“This valuable and superbly written study of midwestern farm and small-town boyhoods and subsequent careers will captivate hosts of readers. The smell of corn and hogs, the sounds and silences of hamlets and county seats, and schoolyard athletics, classroom instruction, and theatrical presentationall redolently here. A first-rate regional study.”
—Richard W. Etulain, author of Re-imagining the Modern American West: A Century of Fiction, History, and ArtSee fewer reviews...
Many of these men are familiar, icons even—Ford and Reagan, certainly, Ernie Pyle, Sinclair Lewis, James Dean, and Lawrence Welk—and others, like artists Oscar Micheaux and John Steuart Curry, economist Alvin Hansen and composer Meredith Willson, less so. But in their stories, as John E. Miller tells them, all appear in a new light, unique in their backgrounds and accomplishments, united only in the way their lives reveal the persisting, shaping power of place, and particularly the Midwest, on the cultural imagination and national consciousness.
In a thoroughly engaging style Miller introduces us to the small-town Midwestern boys who became these all-American characters, privileging us with insights that pierce the public images of politicians and businessmen, thinkers and entertainers alike. From the smell of the farm, the sounds and silences of hamlets and county seats, the schoolyard athletics and classroom instruction and theatrical performance, we follow these men to their moments of inspiration, innovation, and fame, observing the workings of the small-town past in their very different relationships with the larger world. Their stories reveal in an intimate way how profoundly childhood experiences shape personal identity, and how deeply place figures in the mapping of thought, belief, ambition, and life's course.