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The Zone of Indifference

On America’s vernacular regions

Illinois Times

September 2, 1981

Questions about how people form a sense of place were stimulated by my own efforts to make sense of the place where I grew up—like it, I have a little bit of a lot of places in me, and like the region I lack a very distinct sense of myself as a result. Most of us’ns do hereabouts.


Wilbur Zelinsky is addicted to geographic puzzle-solving. That can be a profitable vice in a professor of geography, which is what Zelinsky is at Pennsylvania State University. The most complicated puzzles of them all are America’s vernacular regions, what Zelinsky calls "the shared, spontaneous image[s]c of territorial reality, local or not so local, hovering in the minds of the untutored."


Little is known about them, in part because the minds of the untutored remain impervious to the usual cartographic vocabularies. A few local ones have been mapped, but the sub-national regions remain vaguely defined. Those that remain are being eroded by the shiftlessness of Americans, and by shopping malls and the disorientations of the sports industry which perversely maroons Tampa Bay in the NFC’s Central Division. Beyond the compulsions of the preservationist ethic, Zelinsky figured the vernacular regions might be the very next craze. Grassroots regionalism will water the sprouting branches of resurrected ethnicity, historical preservation, folklore studies, even the regional press, because all of them are "deeply imbued with a sense of place." Regional is In.


To chart the dimensions of this new regionalism, Zelinsky closeted himself with telephone directories from 276 U.S. and Canadian cities. He noted the incidence of various regionalisms in the names of dry-cleaning shops, schools, tattoo parlors, and feminist cooperatives in each city; by connecting cities in which the use of a given term or set of terms was roughly equivalent—isolines which chart cultural weather fronts—he was able to identify and map fourteen subnational vernacular regions.


I was interested in one of Zelinsky’s constructs in particular. He had patiently measured the incidence (and thus the putative intensity of regional feeling) of terms denoting northernness and southernness and charted the result; he did the same with families of terms denoting East and West. In each case he revealed what he called a "zone of indifference" between the two major regions in which identifications with either region were so tenuous as to be meaningless.


Curious, I sketched in the area of the map where Zelinsky’s two zones of indifference overlapped—a region whose own placid disregard for labels earned from Prof. Z. the name, Zone of Indifference. This Zone includes a slice of lower Michigan, most of Indiana’s northern half, bits of eastern Iowa and Missouri, and virtually every clod of central Illinois. Zelinsky has thus confirmed scientifically the conclusions I and my fellows had formed years ago, namely that this sketch of the continent is nowhere. In a slightly different connection, Zelinsky argues that there may be places "so secure in their social-geographic identity, so self-contained or else so permeated with a sense of ‘middleness’ with respect to other parts of the nation, that they find it pointless to attach regional labels to their activities." Permeated, that’s us; nowhere in a nutshell.


Like a black hole, the Zone must be described by what it isn’t. It is part of Zelinsky’s Middle West ("Midwest" and "Mid-American") to be sure. But the Middle West is a term connoting no place in particular, as Zelinsky himself showed with his phone books; he found the term being used from Alberta to Tennessee. To those of us who grew up in it, indifferent was something you were, not someplace you were from.


The geology around here gets pretty complicated. It shows in our speech and our food, even sports. Springfield is typical in that it’s riven between affections for the baseball Cubs from Chicago (big city and European, a winter city, quintessential Frostbelt) and the Cardinals from St. Louis (river town, reluctantly urban, humid, a summer, Southern city). When the Redbirds and the Iowa Oaks [Cards and Cubs farm teams] play each other in town, the bleachers colloquies are reminiscent of a Lincoln-Douglas free state-slave state wrangle, a Missouri Com- promise with hot dogs.


This mixing of regional blood revealed itself most providentially in the veins of Abraham Lincoln—the man who was denigrated in his home as "the essence of a cute Yankee," the man who married a Southern belle, who went to war to defend the economics of the West and ended it carrying the flag of the Northern abolitionists. Maybe that’s why Lincoln is innocent of any regional brand; he belongs to the ages because no one has been able to figure out where else to put him.


Zelinsky acknowledges that geography is as much a matter of perception as position. He asks how vernacular regions are born in the , first place but does not answer, except to note that sometimes they enter the folklore from the campus or the press room. The "Sunbelt" is merely the latest of these. "Corn Belt" is another; it is accurate but vague. "Heartland" is a newer variant which manages to be both vague and pretentious. Neither satisfies. E. B. White, noted in his foreword to a collection of essays published in 1962 that although he yearned for the romance of travel, his affairs seldom took him out of his accustomed track. "I invented a new compass and a more accommodating windvane," he explained. From an arbitrary point on and somewhat above Manhattan’s 43rd St., "all I had to do was sit down anywhere and I was somewhere."


That’s an old trick in the Zone; poet Vachel Lindsay once wrote of his ` native Springfield, "Romance, Romance—is here. No Hindu town/Is quite so strange." But Lindsay’s windvane was not so accommodating. He never believed that line about Springfield, and spent most of his life wandering from it on tramping expeditions or lecture tours, and the poems that made him famous were not about the Zone but the places, from the Congo to Kansas, that the Zone was not.


Demography may yet do what geography has left undone since those halcyon days of the 19th century when the Zone stood in relief at the edge of civilization, Press accounts of the census’ final preliminary counts featured maps showing the population shifts with great looping arrows sweeping down from the Northeast and Upper Midwest toward the Gulf and Southwest, like advancing armies. It is an encouraging trend. A few more years, and we here in the Zone will again be poised on the abyss, gazing past our borders into a vast unsettled wilderness. Only this time we’ll be looking in the other direction, so that some 21st century itinerant will stop again, sample our cooking, and report the results to his incredulous readers. "Out East," he’ll call it. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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