Horace M. Kallen in the Heartland

The Midwestern Roots of American Pluralism

Michael C. Steiner

The Harvard-educated, Jewish American philosopher Horace Meyer Kallen (1882–1974) is commonly credited with the concept of cultural pluralism, which envisioned immigrant and minority groups cultivating their distinctive social worlds and interacting to create an inclusive, ever-changing true American culture. Though living and teaching in Madison, Wisconsin, when he developed this influential theory, Kallen’s seven-year sojourn in the Midwest (1911–1918) rarely figures in accounts of the theory’s origins. And yet, Michael C. Steiner suggests, the Midwest, far from being a mere interruption in Kallen’s thought, was in fact the essential catalyst for the theory of cultural pluralism, a concept that continues to shape public debate a century later.

The Midwest in the first decades of the twentieth century was a youthful region experiencing massive immigration and the xenophobic fervor of approaching war. In this milieu Steiner locates a pervasive pluralist zeitgeist rife with urban- and rural-based intellectuals and public figures deeply critical of both the all-absorbing melting pot ideology and white racist Anglo-Saxon exclusionism. Early proponents of diversity who interacted with Kallen to forge a pluralist sensibility and ideology as the Midwest was becoming the nation’s dominant region included public figures Hamlin Garland, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Jane Addams; African American activists Reverdy Ransom and Ida B. Wells; Norwegian American writers Ole E. Rølvaag and Waldemar Ager; and intellectuals Randolph Bourne and John Dewey. Tracing how Kallen’s interaction with these figures and his regional experience expanded his vision and added the final touch and crucial spatial dimension to his theory, Horace M. Kallen in the Heartland enhances our understanding of cultural pluralism. The book has direct bearing on the present, as once again denunciation of diversity and mass migration challenge the tenets and advocates of pluralism.

“Michael C. Steiner’s innovative study of Horace M. Kallen’s impact on the American intellectual landscape pays close attention to the hitherto neglected midwestern backdrop that shaped Kallen’s theory of cultural pluralism. Deploying a multifaceted lens, Steiner’s analysis of Kallen’s distinctive profile and the dynamic complexity of the American public arena is probing and generative; it also updates the scholarship surrounding Kallen in productive and important ways. Researchers and lay readers interested in American intellectual history, American cultural history, and the history of the American Jewish experience will find no better guide to American societys pluralist tradition and Kallen’s outsized influence on the American scene.”

—Mark Raider, professor of modern Jewish history, University of Cincinnati

“Horace Kallen, champion of cultural pluralism, emerged fully from the ethnically and racially diverse intellectual ferment of America’s Upper Midwest. Richly evoking early twentieth-century culture wars that pitted nativists/white nationalists against non-Anglo immigrants and people of color, Michael C. Steiner’s eloquent, erudite study examines and situates Kallen’s key role in a not-so-bygone moment that resonates powerfully with our current fraught era.”

—James P. Leary, Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures, University of Wisconsin–Madison

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About the Author

Michael C. Steiner is professor emeritus of American studies at California State University, Fullerton. He is editor most recently of Regionalists on the Left: Radical Voices from the American West and coeditor of, among other books, Many Wests: Place, Culture, and Regional Identity, also from Kansas.