Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Book Reviews

There’s Nothing Normal about Normal

On the surface, “normal” might seem harmless, charmingly self-deprecating, maybe even endearing.

Noah J. Toly

Woman driving a wheat thresher on a Midwestern farm, Ladies’ Home Journal, October 1919; Glasshouse Images/Alamy Stock Photo..

It is “no easy matter,” James Baldwin once wrote, to unearth the “unspoken but profound assumptions” that really govern American society. That work grows more difficult when we throw into high relief the only region of the country saddled with the impossible burden of typifying the whole: that is, the part of the country we characterize as “the Rust Belt” or “flyover country,” “the heartland” or “middle America.” Yet during the past five years, observers undeterred by the degree of difficulty have set themselves to the task, seeking fresh insights into the Midwest, a region that is somehow both ignored and made the object of nervous scrutiny.

At first glance, Phil Christman’s Midwest Futures is simply another in this long line. Some readers of this journal will recognize Christman as an occasional contributor. (His essay, “The Strange Undeath of Middlebrow,” appears in the present issue, and he is also the author of “On Being Midwestern: The Burden of Normality,” an essay published in the fall 2017 issue of The Hedgehog Review.) I am tempted to say that if Christman had done it right, no one would remember “On Being Midwestern,” unless it were remembered, like the region itself, for being merely ordinary, nothing special, boring, normal. Nevertheless, Christman pulled off quite the performative contradiction, not by exploring the normalcy of the region but by counting the costs of Midwestern cliché.

If it is fair to say that some readers have been waiting for Christman’s follow-up work for three years, I have been waiting for someone to explain the Midwest to me for much longer. After growing up in California, New York, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, I moved to Illinois in 2006. In a region with very blurry boundaries—Is Nebraska midwestern? Is western Pennsylvania?—Illinois is, according to a survey cited in Midwest Futures, the state most consistently regarded as midwestern. After fourteen years here, I love the place, but I still need help to describe it. Sometimes it seems easiest just to say what it’s not. It’s not the decadent East Coast nor the majestic West nor the eccentric South. It’s plain. And gentle. And…plain. I should emphasize that my obvious deficiencies in understanding the region persist despite more than two decades of noble efforts by my wife, a Michigander with multigeneration roots in the Midwest, to educate me about the place.

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