The End of the End of History?   /   Fall 2017   /    Essays

On Being Midwestern

The Burden of Normality

Phil Christman

The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, West Branch, Iowa (detail), 1931, by Grant Wood (1891–1942); ART Collection; Alamy Stock Photo.

What does it mean to be Midwestern?

After my Texas-born wife and I moved to Michigan—an eleven-hour drive in the snow, during which time itself seemed to widen and flatten with the terrain—I found myself pressed into service as an expert on the region where I was born and where I have spent most of my life. “What is the Midwest like?” she asked. “Midwestern history, Midwestern customs, Midwestern cuisine?” I struggled to answer with anything more than clichés: bad weather, hard work, humble people. I knew these were inadequate. Connecticut winters and Arizona summers are also “bad”; the vast majority of humans have worked hard, or been worked hard, for all of recorded history; and humility is one of those words, like authenticity or (lately) resistance, that serves mainly to advertise the absence of the thing named.

I soon learned that I was hardly the only Midwesterner left tongue-tied by the Midwest. Articulate neighbors, friends, colleagues, and students, asked to describe their hometowns, replied with truisms that, put together, were also paradoxes: “Oh, it’s in the middle of nowhere.” “It’s just like anywhere, you know.” “We do the same things people do everywhere.” No-places are as old as Thomas More’s Utopia, but a no-place that is also everyplace and anyplace doesn’t really add up. Nor, at least in my experience, does one hear such language from people in other regions—from Southerners, Californians, Arubans, Yorkshiremen. Canadians live in a country that has been jokingly described as America’s Midwest writ larger—Canada and our Midwest share, among other things, manners, weather, topography, and a tendency among their inhabitants to downplay their own racism—yet they are hyperspecific in their language, assuming a knowledge of local landmarks that it never occurs to them non-Canadians may not possess. They assume that whatever their setting is, it is a setting, not, as Midwesterner-turned-expatriate Glenway Wescott once wrote of Wisconsin, “an abstract nowhere.”1

When pressed, a person might explain these tropes of featurelessness by pointing out the similarities imposed across the Midwestern landscape by capitalism. Boosters sometimes still call the region “America’s breadbasket,” and for much of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was also, to a large degree, America’s foundry, and, during World War II, its armory.2 (Such is the extractive quality of Midwestern economic history that some historians have proposed that we take seriously the painter Grant Wood’s irritated description of the region, in his 1935 pamphlet Revolt against the City, as a colony of the East.)3 What all of this means in practice, of course, is vast visual repetition: mile upon mile of cornfields, block upon block of crumbling factories. (Willa Cather: “The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.”)4

But even used and battered landscapes have their particularity. Detroit’s blight isn’t Cleveland’s blight, any more than Manchester’s is Birmingham’s. Nor are any two cornfields truly exactly alike, despite Monsanto’s best efforts. The British cultural imagination has been formed by writers such as Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence who are perfectly capable of distinguishing among bleaknesses; there’s no reason the American imagination should not pay the Midwest the same tribute. Especially in a period when some of the more interesting art and music consists of similar procedures repeated on a massive canvas, when cultured people are trained to find meaning in the tiny variations of a Philip Glass symphony or an early John Adams tape piece, you’d think we could learn to truly see Midwestern flatness as something richer than mindless repetition. (Willa Cather again: “No one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it. It was a kind of freemasonry.”)5

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