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Hoosiers: A definitive new history of Indiana


James H. Madison
  • James H. Madison

Indiana has changed not through revolution but gradually, through evolution. At least, that's what James H. Madison argued in his 1986 book The Indiana Way: A State History. Madison's book became a classic, impressing some readers in high places. Former Governor Mitch Daniels loved to quote from it in his speeches and called it "the definitive history of our state."

Not any more. Madison's recently published Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana surpasses his old one in just about every way. "People say, 'I have a copy of The Indiana Way," Madison tells NUVO in a coffee shop near IU's Bloomington campus, where he is an emeritus professor of history. "And I say throw it away — don't even put it in used bookstores."

One of Hoosiers' many innovations is the inclusion of often marginalized perspectives: women, Native Americans, working-class Hoosiers. This isn't just the George Rogers Clark greatest hits. Hoosiers starts with the glaciers, which made our state flat and fertile. It takes you inside the cabins and lives of Indiana's earliest pioneers, like an African American who arrived in 1831. "If you could be here," he wrote to his family in the south. "I could go with you in some fields that would make you open your eyes."

Madison continues his story up through the age of Michael Jackson and Milan High School. And while our 21st century Indiana can feel like it's in the middle of some pretty heated revolutions — thanks in part to assertive leaders like Daniels — Madison always describes them in a clear and erudite style. Hoosiers doesn't pick sides. It simply presents them, all of them, without ever getting too worked up — and in that respect, it feels like a very Hoosier book indeed.

NUVO: What drew you to write about our state's past?

James Madison: I sort of fell into Indiana history. No one decides to be a historian of Indiana. But I feel very fortunate that I did. I grew up in Pennsylvania and came to I.U. for graduate school. I came back there to teach in the mid '70s, and the history department needed someone to edit the Indiana Magazine of History and to teach a course on Indiana history. So I started doing both, and those students really taught me what the important questions were.

NUVO: The idea of states as a defining concept can seem a little strange. After all, your new book starts with the Ice Age, long before Indiana ever existed, and today people can seem more attached to their country or political party than to their home state. So why do states matter?

Madison: Clearly, we live in a globalized society. No one needs to argue that point. But the fact that states are important is something many people don't understand. Kurt Vonnegut once said, "If you open a window and make love to the world ... your story will get pneumonia." It's better to make love to a particular place, and once you pay attention to states they become very important, especially in terms of politics.

Beyond that we in Indiana are blessed — some would say cursed — with an identity. Most states don't have that to the extent we do. We call ourselves "Hoosiers," and behind that nickname, which has been around since the 1830s, is a set of values. A lot of what I do in this book is say, Who are these people, these Hoosiers? Where do they come from? How have they changed over the last 200 years?

NUVO: So what makes Hoosiers different than, say, Kentuckians, who are in many spots only a river away?

Madison: It's hard not to descend into triteness, and of course there are lots of exceptions. But the mainstream Hoosier has always been someone who lives in terms of moderation, of comfort, someone who's reluctant to change, who believes that no one is above me and no one is below me.

Now compare that to Kentucky. We never want to forget that Kentucky was a slave state, and while that might seem so long ago that it doesn't matter, it does. Indiana is less tolerant of class differences than Kentucky. There have always been the well off and the not so well off, and in Kentucky that hierarchy was and is more acceptable — something you saw in slavery, in horse farms, in all sorts of traditions you don't see in our state.

NUVO: You mentioned those exceptions to mainstream Hoosiers, and your new book includes a bunch of them.

Madison: That's one of its biggest differences, and I worked very hard on it. We just know more now. When I wrote The Indiana Way, for instance, there was barely anything you could call women's history. There's now a lot more — still not enough, but more. So while the old stories of Tecumseh and William Henry Harrison are still in my new book, they now include fresh angles. I can write with more details and quotations from Native Americans as individuals. I can challenge the default assumption that pioneers were white. Because in Indiana there were many communities of African American pioneers.

The other important thing to remember is that these exceptions also show us how the mainstream was actually a mainstream. By the end of the 19th century, there was an Indiana way of doing art, politics, and commerce. And Hoosiers were very proud of that. But when it came to people who where not part of that identity — of that tribe, if you will — there was sometimes opposition to even imagining them as part of the community. They were rejected.

NUVO: One example you discuss in depth is the Ku Klux Klan — though your discussion is not what many readers will expect.

Madison: This is where I become a Hoosier patriot, when people slam Indiana as a "Klan state." In Indiana, the Klan wasn't interested in African Americans. They were interested in Catholics. That's hard to understand today, but in the 1920s, Catholics were outsiders. We have lots of new scholarship on this topic, and I can write with confidence about who joined the Klan and why. Their enemy was the Catholic Hoosier. They wanted to save America from sin and debauchery — that music, that dancing, that alcohol. To them, Catholics were a part of that. But today most people have forgotten this. They just label Indiana a Klan state, which obviously has very negative connotations. It shuts down further conversation.

READ: An excerpt from Hoosiers regarding the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana

NUVO: It seems like we're holding on to some of the traditional Hoosier mentality — calm and careful, though also resistant to change. Back in 2012, a Republican State Rep fired off an email accusing the Girl Scouts of "indoctrinating" with liberal ideas. So House Speaker Brian Bosma coolly took the floor and began munching on some Thin Mints. While reading your book, I remembered that episode and thought, "That is so Indiana."

Madison: You're exactly right, and I could have used that example. That is still the Indiana way, at least in part. We like to be nice — that's one of our traditions. But Bosma also found a very effective way to make his point.

NUVO: And yet, at the same time, we now have state reps who are savaging the Girl Scouts! Is Indiana abandoning its evolutionary approach?

Madison: In America, change in the last 30 years has come fast and furious, and traditional Hoosiers have struggled with those changes perhaps more than many Americans have. The old timers, for instance, were shocked by Richard Lugar's defeat in 2012. Richard Mourdock coming out, the way he did, was to some an affront to Indiana traditions. But I don't know that we've seen a clear shift. Nothing will ever stay the same, but I'd like to think these traditions are so deep and so strong that they will remain.

NUVO: Right now, education seems to be the most revolutionary topic of all.

Madison: Yes, but I'd like to think in part it's the personalities, particularly with the new governor's office and the new state superintendent's office going at each other in a way that's a colossal waste of taxpayer resources. Will different leaders have different outcomes? I sure hope so.

Still, we're always going to have problems with schools. You have to remember that education was on the agenda in 1816, when they wrote Indiana's state constitution. You also have to remember that Indiana moves very slowly. Today, Pre-K education is a no brainer, but it's still taking a long time. I think we can take some comfort from history. There were serious and real attempts to reform our schools in the 1840s, and those changes had big consequences. But they were incremental. It wasn't until the 1890s that Indiana passed its first comprehensive and compulsory education law.

NUVO: How do you plan to keep educating Hoosiers about their past?

Madison: Well, it looks like the Indiana Public Broadcasting folks are going to put together a documentary based on my new book. God willing, I'll soon be standing on Lake Michigan or outside the courthouse in Corydon, spouting off about Indiana history. But I'm an Indiana history missionary — I want to convert the pagans. I'm willing to do whatever it takes, and a book is one step, but there are many other ways to do it.


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