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.

Christman, another Michigander, has a similar story to tell. When he and his wife moved to his home state, she relied on him for an orientation to the distinguishing characteristics of the Midwest, but all he could muster were unsatisfying platitudes about obviously nondistinctive characteristics:

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—she pressed me into service as a local explainer, asking me about Midwestern customs, Midwestern cuisine, Midwestern identity. I struggled to answer her reasonable questions, about a place where I was born, and where I have spent most of my life, 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 have 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 being named.

This is exactly the problem. Much talking and writing about the Midwest amounts to saying that the most distinctive thing about it is that there is nothing distinctive about it. The Midwest is the historical, geographic, demographic, and cultural average aggregated in one undifferentiated region. It’s…normal.

On the surface, “normal” might seem harmless, charmingly self-deprecating, maybe even endearing. But what if “normal” is less a word used to describe a place we’ve come to understand, and more a concept by which we come to tame the region’s unruly realities? What if “normal” is a symbol that foregrounds and sharpens our focus on some aspects of midwestern life while backgrounding and blurring others? What darker histories and deeper assumptions are hidden by “normal”? What resources might we have at our disposal, though they may be obscured by the region’s self-effacing tendencies, that can make midwesterners partners in charting possible futures for the country and the world? And how did “normal” become normal, anyway?

Christman traces the normalization of the Midwest to the Land Ordinances of 1784 and 1785, which commissioned surveyors to canvass and parcel the lands stretching west from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. After Great Britain ceded its claim to this territory in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress set aside $60,000 for “purchases of Indian rights of soil, and incidental expenses”; ordered the land organized into townships of six square miles apiece, each subdivided into thirty-six one-square-mile plots; and designated it for sale. The point? Paying off the national debt. The government sold whole townships to land companies at the nearly unfathomable markup of about 200,000 percent over what they had set aside to pay Native American tribes; land companies then sold the smaller blocks to individual buyers. It was a picture of American egalitarianism: Anyone could own a piece of formerly Native American land—provided that “anyone” did not include women, slaves, or Native Americans, themselves—and this vast transfer of wealth would fill the government’s coffers and offset war debts. (Maybe the Midwest is “typical American,” after all.)

If the landscape of the Midwest was subjected to a rigid and predictable Cartesian pattern, the history of the region is normalized like a ten-year rolling average. Our storytelling takes out the extremes and smooths the mounded fields of Cahokia, the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the 1893 World’s Fair, and the entire story of the place into a more gently sloping line. “The mounded fields of what?” or “The battle of what what?” some might ask. Exactly.

“Normal” not only smooths history, but reinforces the status quo by burying radical potential for the future. The very things we take for granted about the region are often extravagant gifts simultaneously threatened by future challenges and potentially useful for reckoning with them. Take topsoil, for example:

The Midwest became central to so many of this country’s stories about itself in part because it is naturally rich, productive. But that is not a normal thing to be; it is precisely a gift, something generous and prodigious. That we take such a good place for granted, as though its usefulness for human life were proof of its dullness and interchangeability, allows us to misuse it, and ourselves, and each other, who are marked as boring for having come from this boringly good thing, or marked as threatening because they didn’t. It takes a thousand years for the earth to make three centimeters of topsoil. (Climate change encourages floods, which wash topsoil out to sea.)

The effects of these impositions—normalizing geography, history, and even the gifts that set the region apart—are akin to erecting a dam that keeps a wild river back from its natural course, transforms its power into electricity available to far-off communities at push-button convenience, controls seasonal flooding, and quietly menaces the structure’s immediate surroundings with the potential for catastrophic failure. The Midwest has not a few of these dams; last May, two of them broke.

As northern Illinois and central Michigan, along with other parts of the Midwest, experienced record rainfall, Michigan’s Tittabawassee River crested at historic levels, reaching 150 percent of flood stage. Water piled high behind the Edenville and Sanford Dams, prompting warnings of imminent, life-threatening danger and forcing thousands downstream of the dams to begin evacuating by midday on Tuesday, May 19. There was little time. The first dam broke on Tuesday afternoon; the second collapsed sometime after that, though the exact time is hard to know, as the high waters first completely overtopped and obscured the artifice. The flooding left towns and cities under mud, carried topsoil and pollutants into the Saginaw River and out to Lake Huron, and turned residents of the Michigan towns of Sanford and Midland into victims of status quo climate politics.

As if the water were not enough, the cities of the Midwest were, shortly afterward, visited by fire. Just six days after the Edenville and Sanford Dams broke, a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a black man, by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes, ignoring Floyd’s pleas for his life. Cellphone video of the brutality stoked protests and widespread civil unrest, beginning in Minnesota before breaking out all over the country, putting a region frequently associated with the national status quo at least momentarily at the center of an ongoing reckoning with racial injustice—a reckoning that begins by acknowledging what Christman describes as “the unbearable truth of the Midwest, of America”:

The picture-postcard city where neighbors pitch in during a storm and the sundown town are the same place. The Minneapolis that welcomes immigrants and the Minneapolis that allows its police to beat the poor are the same place. The Michigan that helped beat the Confederacy and the Michigan where white people lock their car doors while drifting through Saginaw are the same place. One does not disprove the other. One is not the underbelly of the other. One will not finally triumph over the other. We have to reckon with both simultaneously; or we must admit to being both simultaneously.

Christman doesn’t give us a formula for this work, but he does begin to set an example and, in doing so arrives alongside others, who have retold the tales of the Midwest with greater complexity, encouraging readers to come to terms with less selective histories, less dull representations, even while recognizing that the more complex stories are sometimes more painful to retell. (I recommend reading Midwest Futures in tandem with Tiya Miles’s The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits.)

Just as important, Christman invites readers and others into a “we” that is responsible for our future. Rather than blame others and distance himself from accountability, he yokes himself to a shared responsibility for the future. In this way, he rejects the worst instincts of polarized discourse that simply blames the other side. And he avoids the chief temptation of milquetoast centrism by encouraging readers to identify their enemies. The point is not simply to defeat our enemies, but to love them, and we can’t love our enemies if they’re so amorphous that we don’t know who they are. “In my religious tradition,” Christman writes,

we are told to love our enemies. We are not told to pretend we have none. The reason is obvious: once you’ve named your enemies as such, the duty of loving them stands out clearly, named and unavoidable. The political polarization of our moment is not going away, and it shouldn’t go away; there are really important conflicts to settle, about which people from the same family, people who love each other, differ fundamentally. (Polarization, not conciliation, ended slavery.) In lieu of bemoaning it, as middle-of-the-road liberals do, I would propose that we speak honestly about who our enemies are, under which circumstances, and what kinds of duties this acknowledgment imposes on us. It’s a serious responsibility, having an enemy. Not for babies.

In the end, what Christman unfolds here is the most demanding responsibility for the future that we can possibly imagine. It is too easy, irresponsible, and even cowardly—and all too common—to identify our enemies for the sake of placing blame on them. The courage it takes to name enemies for the sake of loving them, and then to place oneself alongside them as one who also bears responsibility for the outcomes, for the future, is uncommon. It is no easy matter. It’s not normal.