Tragic Prelude; John Steuart Curry
By Kenyon Gradert, Course on Midwest Culture series Editor
The Midwest—half of its name ringing with the romantic potential of the frontier—has long been the home to millennial hopes. Contrary to today’s popular opinion, many have believed that this flyover region would be where everything came together in the end. From Bleeding Kansas to Farm Crisis, things fell apart.
Many Jews look to Jerusalem for the final millennial establishment of their end-times temple, but Mormon eschatology has traditionally declared that in the end times, their heavenly temple will be in Independence, Missouri. Before Brigham Young led his Israelites into the desert, Mormons called Nauvoo, Illinois their home in exile. Not far away and not long before, New Harmony, Indiana was one of the most successful utopian communities in the United States. In between New Harmony and Nauvoo, a group of quixotic philosophers called the “St. Louis Hegelians” believed that, because of the city’s strategic location in geography and history, it would be the site of the full unfolding of Absolute Spirit—everything marvelous in human development would reach its apex here. If world history ended with the 1904 World’s Fair, perhaps.
The most pervasive Midwestern Millennialism came with the Civil War, for it was here that geopolitical tensions first threatened to tear apart the nation. As the status of slavery was in the air for the territories west of the Mississippi, Yankee abolitionists came to the region with hopes of guaranteeing universal liberty. (And it was here Elijah Lovejoy became one of the first abolitionist martyrs just across the river.) Pro-slavery advocates flocked to the region in equal force and blood was spilt. “Bleeding Kansas” saw the most violent of these conflicts years before Fort Sumter.
One small Kansas town in particular continues to ring with millennial hope into the present. Osawatomie is where prophetic abolitionist John Brown’s sons hacked pro-slavery Kansans to death with broadswords. (The old man confined himself to shooting the injured in the head.) Fifty-six years later, Teddy Roosevelt paid the town a stop on his 1912 campaign trail and baptized the site with his famous “New Nationalism” speech in which he outlined his progressive platform.
The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows. That is what you fought for in the Civil War, and that is what we strive for now.
President Obama greeting the audience in Osawatomie; Associated Press
Last December, Barack Obama also stopped in Osawatomie, to revive Teddy’s New Nationalism, but also to claim its foundation of Heartland values:
I have roots here…I like to say that I got my name from my father, but I got my accent--and my values--from my mother. She was born in Wichita. Her mother grew up in Augusta. Her father was from El Dorado, so my Kansas roots run deep. And my grandparents served during WWII…together they shared the optimism of a nation that triumphed over the Great Depression and Fascism. They believed in an America where hard work paid off and responsibility was rewarded and anyone could make it if they tried…And these values gave rise to the largest middle class and the strongest economy that the world has ever known.
Obama claims regional roots for himself effectively, sprouting from these roots the values that flower into the same millennial hopes nurtured by Roosevelt a century prior. Contrary to the thoughts of the St. Louis Hegelians, though, such fruits are not necessary and inevitable, nor are they without the nourishment of blood. The Midwest cannot be forgotten as a fertile field for the best of our millennial hopes, nor can it be forgotten as the home of John Brown’s broadsword, sent straight from the God that gives us such end-time visions of dread and hope.
In 2008, Obama’s campaign focused on hope; detractors deemed it naïve. In returning to bloody Osawatomie and reclaiming his Kansas roots, it seems Obama himself has taken the criticism to heart, neither abandoning the Ideal nor ignoring the violent realpolitik through which it must trudge.
• The painting above, Tragic Prelude, one of the most famous paintings of regionalist Kansan John Steuart Curry. This depiction of John Brown holding the fragile nation together was painted in 1939—the same year that the US attempted neutrality in the Second World War, The Wizard of Oz premiered, FDR approved the Manhattan Project, and Lou Gherig ended his consecutive games streak due to disease. The center could not hold. The mural is now located in the Kansas Statehouse.