Is there a Midwestern sensibility, a sense of who we are? The South, with its terrible history, knows what it is. New England exists as a region and as a reality, with its own history and character. California and Texas are not only states but states of mind. But the Midwest?
Andrew R.L. (Drew) Cayton, a history professor at Miami University in Ohio, has probably written the most thoughtful essays on the Midwest as a place and Midwesterners as a people. His best work that I've seen is a brilliant essay (in a book he co-edited called The American Midwest) which defines the Midwestern region as "the Anti-region."
Few books, in fact, discuss the Midwest as a whole, as a region: books on the South can and do fill whole libraries. Until recently, no Midwestern college or university even taught a course on the Midwest. Cayton himself, in his day job, specializes in American revolutionary history, not the Midwest.
"What distinguishes the Midwest," he writes, "is the absence not just of contested regional meanings, but of any kind of regional discourse itself."
This is serious stuff. If the Midwest is to act as a region, it must know what it is. It must define itself. It needs a unifying portrait, a communal myth. To paint this portrait, we look to our writers, especially our novelists. The Midwest has produced great writers a-plenty but most of them -- Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis -- left to write novels about heroines, like Carol Kennicott, trapped in the region's Gopher Prairies, or heroes, like George Willard, who flee its Winesburgs in search of real life elsewhere. Fitzgerald called the Midwest "the dark fields of the republic:" the phrase comes from The Great Gatsby and describes Nick Carraway's flight from his Midwestern roots.
I'd argue that, despite what Cayton says, there is a Midwestern literature and it's alive and well and painting that portrait. It's a literature that is distinctly Midwestern, in the sense that it couldn't be written anywhere else. Like the Midwest itself, it's a subtle literature, not much given to high drama, about people who live quiet lives, seeking meaning as individuals in a landscape that goes to some effort to discourage individualism. For a region so rooted in the soil, the Midwest can seem elusive, and these writers are able to grasp these lives as they pass by.
There's something almost mystical about most Midwestern writing today, as opposed to the sensuality of Southern literature or the realism of California. So much Midwestern literature, both by those who left and those who stayed, seems to be about a sort of Brigadoon, a place in our memory that we went to some trouble to escape but never really left, and now can't find again.
Examples abound. Both Gopher Prairie and Winesburg live on in the popular imagination as places to leave that we still carry with us, wherever we go. Anyone who has ever lived in a Gopher Prairie or a Winesburg know that Lewis and Anderson got these places right -- not only the stultifying sameness but, beneath the surface, exotic lives led, just out of sight.
But the real mysticism of Midwestern writing is more visible in more recent works, the products of a Midwest that is aging, becoming less hopeful, a little sour, almost gothic, with an irony that some of this earlier writing lacked. I'm thinking of books by people like Marilynne Robinson, the Iowa City author whose novels, like Gilead and Home, may be the best writing coming out of the Midwest, or anywhere. These are hushed books, about vivid lives lived quietly. There is a powerful link between past and present in them: their Midwesterners know that what they plant in the spring will be harvested in the fall.
Edgar Arlington Robinson evoked the undercurrents of these lives. Jane Smiley caught it, too, in novels of strong people set in bland settings, like the campus of Iowa State (Moo) or a farm a few miles north of Ames (A Thousand Acres). Ted Kooser's poems and stories, set in the "Bohemian Alps" of eastern Nebraska, see the exceptionalism of small places: not for nothing is his little book of essays called Local Wonders. Jim Harrison's books emerge from northern Michigan: unlike Hemingway, he hasn't had to leave to write them. Kent Haruf, out on the plains of eastern Colorado, may be geographically remote from the Midwest but his books, especially Plainsong, share this quality.
Kathleen Norris uses memoir to evoke this tension, especially in Dakota. Most notably, so does Garrison Keillor, whose Lake Wobegon fables describe a world that never really existed, yet is instantly familiar to Midwesterners who read them.
Norris and Keillor share with Sinclair Lewis the anger of people trapped in a small town that seems to deny their possibilities as human beings. Most of this is between the lines, but not always. Norris fumes that her neighbors need to insist that their values are somehow superior to those of the outside world, because the community itself is so fragile that, if exposed to reality, it would simply disintegrate. "Anger" seems an odd word to describe Keillor's work, but there's a long footnote, stretching over many pages, in Lake Wobegon Days that contains more sheer rage than almost anything I've ever read.
In earlier days, much Midwestern literature was super-realistic: the work of Theodore Dreiser and James T. Farrell come to mind, not to mention the wonderful work of black Midwestern authors such as Richard Wright and Lorraine Hansberry. But later writing reveals an urge to the bizarre, a sort of magic realism absent from the epics of the South or the hard-boiled policiers of the West. Keillor uses this. So does the baseball writing of W.P. Kinsella, such as Shoeless Joe (the inspiration for Field of Dreams) and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. It's no accident that Ray Bradbury's Midwestern youth led to so much his work.
Bad things happen in Midwestern literature but not in your face. If there's a rape, it doesn't happen onstage, as in A Streetcar Named Desire: we're not New Orleans. If there's incest, as in A Thousand Acres, we learn about it years later. If there's adultery out on the farm, as in The Bridges of Madison County, it happens only after the traveling photographer carefully parks his pickup behind Francesca's farmhouse, where the neighbors can't see it. We're sinful and lusty, but we're also discreet. Life goes on, but beneath the surface. (And Francesca, in the end, chooses to leave that surface unruffled, by staying with her husband: Scarlett O'Hara would have run off with Rhett Butler in an instant.)
All this omits many fine writers, such as Louise Erdrich, and some lesser ones: David Pichaske has written about some of these --Dave Etter, Norbert Blei, William Kloefkorn, Bill Holm, Linda Hasselstrom and Jim Heynen -- in a book called Rooted which, as the title implies, links these Midwestern writers to their landscape, but all these writers receive too little attention, especially at home. Beth McKinsey includes a good dose of Midwestern literature in her course on the Midwest at Carleton College: she tells me that Bill Barillas at the U. of Wisconsin-LaCrosse published a book called The Midwestern Pastoral: Place and Landscape in Literature of the Heartland. If there are others out there writing and teaching this literature, I'd love to know about them.
The point of the writers mentioned above is that their work could not have come from anywhere else, just as the work of William Faulkner and Carson McCullers is nothing if not Southern. Not only the subjects and places of these Midwestern authors are Midwestern, but the very form, the range and limits of their imaginations, are Midwestern, too. Taken together, they are defining this region for us, if we are smart enough to pay attention.