Barnstorming the PrairiesHow Aerial Vision Shaped the Midwest

Barnstorming the PrairiesHow Aerial Vision Shaped the Midwest

Jason Weems

Print publication date: 2016

ISBN: 9780816677504

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press


The history of the American Midwest is marked by stories of inhabitants’ struggles to envision the unbroken expanses of their home landscape. During the 1920s and 1930s these attempts to visualize the landscape intersected with another narrative—that of the airplane. After World War I, aviation gained purpose as a means of linking together the vastness of American space. It also created a new visual sensibility, opening up new vantage points from which to see the world below. This book offers the first comprehensive examination of modern aerial vision and its impact on twentieth-century American life. In particular, the project centers on visualizations of the American Midwest, a region whose undifferentiated topography and Jeffersonian gridwork of farms and small towns were pictured from the air with striking frequency during the early twentieth century. Forging a new and synthetic approach to the study of American art and visual culture, this work analyzes an array of flight-based representation that includes maps, aerial survey photography, painting, cinema, animation, and suburban architecture. The book explores the perceptual and cognitive practices of aerial vision and emphasizes their formative role in re-symbolizing the Midwestern landscape. Weems argues that the new sightlines actualized by aviation composed a new episteme of vision that enabled Americans to conceptualize the region as something other than isolated and unchanging, and to see it instead as a dynamic space where people worked to harmonize the core traditions of America’s agrarian identity with the more abstract forms of twentieth-century modernity.