Rooted: Seven Midwest Writers of Place

(University of Iowa Press, 2006)

Chapter I
Midwestern Literature

“ ‘Would you say that the search for identity is primarily an American theme?’ novelist Ralph Ellison was once asked by an interviewer.  ‘It is the American theme,’ he replied.”  (Cooley  ix)

“Iowa, for example, is not only a state in the union but also a state of mind in the American consciousness—a metaphor accentuating an amorphous traditionalism deployed in the ‘family’; a largely unreflective patriotism; an ethic of hard work and democratic-socialist egalitarianism; community spirit of the action-oriented, ‘barn-raising’ sort; a commitment to ‘basic values’; moral, spiritual, and educational fair-dealing and loyalty to one’s employer; a parsimony on principle; a verbal commitment to the myth of the family farm even in a period of agribusiness takeover; an international export-ethic and aspiration to multinational prowess; a healthy local skepticism about all such claims; and the social practices surrounding American rural and small-town life, particularly those of the community potluck supper, the church social, and the county fair.  Contradictions abound here without entirely disrupting.” (Herr 106)

                                                                        “when I explain myself
I’ll be talking geography.”
(Neruda 101)

Literature boils down, mostly, to three basic questions:  Who am I?  What made me what I am?  What might I become?  It is the answers to those questions that make poetry, stories, novels  and history worth reading—and writing.

There are many answers.  Who am I?  “Oedipus, who bear the famous name. . .  .”  “Call me Ishmael.”  “I’m ‘wife’—I’ve finished that / That other state.”  Call me an Invisible Man.  Call me A Son of the Middle Border.

What made me what I am?   “Divine am I, inside and out.”  “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like. . . .”  “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.”  “I was born on the prairie and the milk of its wheat, the red of its clover, the eyes of its women, gave me a song and a slogan.”   “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners. . . .”

What might I become? “Think thou on hell, Faustus, for thou art damned.”  “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” “Du musst dein Leben ändern.”  “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there.  Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”  “The town of Winesburg had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.”    

Nosce teipsum.    

It is true that all human beings share certain possibilities, if not propensities or characteristics—I might have been you, and you me.  There may be a little of you in me, and me in you.  It is also true, as Ken C. Ryden argues, that literary fiction (he is speaking of Faulkner) “reaches beyond the particular into the universal” (49); it at least attempts to transcend the particular for universal truths, which, like all generalizations, can then be applied again to particulars.  But between the universal great truth—if such truth there be—and each individual lie various levels of generalization.  What is important is to understand that generalizations offer only likelihoods, to assess the correct degree of probability implied in any generalization (not to overgeneralize), to find the right level of applicability for each generalization.

So we understand ourselves in the context of generalizations about those around us, in whom we identify similarities and differences.  Out of the similar we fashion a Self.  “In general,” write Clayton and Onuf, “human beings construct individual identities through identification with other people with whom they believe they share similar values” (43).  The dissimilar becomes a not-Self, an Other (or Others), against which we define the Self.  It is good to encounter the Other, but it is not good to be absorbed into the Other, to become decentered.  Programs of multicultural studies were intended, by the ethnic minorities who created them and mainstream allies who supported them, to construct a female or black or Native American Self in appropriate terms, terms distinct from those of the dominant Other.  In the 1980s and ’90s those programs became quite popular inside the academy.  Inevitably their content was commodified by and disseminated among non-ethnics, with practical support from General Studies requirements and theoretical support from sundry European philosophers, to the extent that the Other annihilated the Self.  Jim Harrison writes satirically of Elizabeth, an undergraduate who “had spent the school year pretending to be Jewish and observing Jewish holidays.  The year before, she had become a Native American.  Bob said the black students were cringing over the idea that they might be next on her schedule of adoptions” (Julip 193).  Many academics these days find themselves completely decentered, and on the T-shirts of students one reads slogans like “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”              

Late twentieth-century theories on the formation of Self—and programs using literature to focus the study of identity—emphasized race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference as forces more powerful in shaping personality than religion, age, geography, diet, birth order, or—two things almost nobody considers—athletic prowess or physical appearance.  Generally speaking, they privilege the Other on the margins over the traditional Self.  Universities these days might offer Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Gay Studies, Islamic Studies, but probably not Protestant Studies, Old Person’s Studies, Homely Person Studies, or, usually, Midwest Studies.  But places too can be marginalized, reduced to “fly-over country.”  And any de-emphasis of place strikes me as historically aberrant in what has always been a nation of regions,1 and in a discipline which takes as a given that a good writer “uses the literary substance which he knows best, the life of his own neighborhood, of his own city or state—the material about which he is most likely to be able to write with meaning” (Frederick xv).  The postmodernist orientation of literary scholarship in the eighties and nineties probably distorted the thinking of a whole generation of graduate students.  The propensity of many postmodernist writers to float upward to placeless abstraction gave us wit without wisdom (pedantry), but it is the tendency of other writers to skip blithely from neighborhood to fashionable neighborhood, home and abroad—some never even visiting the places about which they write—that creates the real poison in the system.  Someday a true Montana patriot will inventory the clichés, misrepresentations, and general inanities of The Horse Whisperer and its progeny.   

A course correction is underway, triggered by general dissatisfaction with the media-generated non-place reflected in titles like Joshua Meyrowitz’s 1985 No Sense of Place and James Kunstler’s 1993 The Geography of Nowhere.  MichaelKowalewski suggests,

Contemporary evocations of place in America often seem embattled, unsettled, and besieged: at odds—often overwhelming odds—with attitudes and economic, technological, and social forces that threaten the local distinctiveness of the American landscape, both rural and urban.  Overscheduled and overstimulated Americans, the feeling goes, have grown numb to the importance of place in their lives.  Members of an “attention deficit disorder” society, . . . Americans are increasingly surrounded by a Velveeta landscape of sprawling, look-alike suburbs, traffic-choked expressways full of drivers on cellphones, and huge, corporate superstores with acres of parking lots.  The spiritual as well as physical “macadamization” of contemporary America has eroded the distinctiveness of individual places and pre-emptively discouraged people from caring about them. (12)

Kowalewski goes on to suggest that both individuals and communities come to consciousness “through, not apart from, the natural environment they inhabit” (16).  He echoes Peirce Lewis, who suggested in 1979, “If we want to understand ourselves, we would do well to take a searching look at our landscapes,” (Meinig 2).  In 1988 Michael Bradshaw noted in the realm of American Studies a developing emphasis on regional units “bringing together literature, the visual arts and historical accounts in terms of ‘regional images’ ” (3), including a basic understanding of “the ways in which geographical space affects social practice and acts as an essential medium for it” (172).  Defining “bioregionalism” in 1999, Dan Flores advanced the argument that the “evolutionary trajectory” of human beings for 99 percent of their time on earth “has been spent as gatherer-hunters living in bands of 125 to 150 that were deeply conversant with small pieces of the world. . . .  If our social lives for the bulk of our time as primate species teach anything, it is that staying in place and interacting in small communities is what evolution has prepared us for” (181). 

Gradually we have come also to understand “place” as meaning not only geography, biosphere, and climate but also “an emotional complex of associations, both generative and restrictive,” including human communities with their unique values and histories (Tammaro and Vinz, vii).  Larry McMurtry draws the connection between social awareness and landscape in his popular and insightful Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: “My social awareness was formed in a place that had been virgin land only a few decades earlier.  Emptiness, space, vast skies, long horizons, and few people were my first facts, and for long, the dominant facts” (45, 46).   Given such an expanded understanding of place, we might rank place as the number one force in shaping personality.  In fall of 2004, Enkhee Dagva, a Mongolian student doing graduate work in Budapest, e-mailed her homesickness, her inability to understand Central Europeans, and her dissatisfaction with grad school theories of personality: “Bioregionalism, or whatever, that talks about landscape affecting character is better than this gender bullshit.  I miss the Gobi, the simplicity of life and ordinariness of the people there . . . so much that it actually hurts to think about it on a morning like this, among people such as these.”        

Place is important to literature for several reasons.  For one thing, many American place names have a ring all their own.  A litany of place names lends that music—and mystique—to a poem or story: Ashtabula, Kankakee, Chicago, Wapakoneta, Yellow Medicine County, Missouri, Ohio, Mississippi.  Place also provides concrete, recognizable markers of geography: names of towns and rivers, species of plants and animals, descriptions of streets and buildings and restaurants, even details of river water that let us know precisely where we are.  “When it was daylight, here was the clear Ohio water in shore, sure enough, and outside was the old regular Muddy!  So it was all up with Cairo” (Twain 77).  In many cases, these markers are significant metaphors, like Robert Bly’s “great sweeps of snow that stop suddenly six feet from the house” (148). 

Place also provides recognizable markers of language, so that in Twain’s words regarding the literary offenses of Fenimore Cooper, the talk shall sound like human talk, and not like the voice from anywhere.  Frederick C. Stern claims that no “unifying linguistic materials” have been found for any geographical region of the country, including the South (16), but dialecticians and other scholars (and writers) disagree.  In an essay titled “Tradition and Innovation in Twentieth-Century Illinois Poetry,” Dan Guillory writes, “In practical terms, the use of tradition has meant an adherence to two kinds of icons: icons of place and icons of voice” (43).  Guillory defines voice as “a set of attitudes and postures . . . a subtle appropriation of reality through unique stops and starts, syntactical leaps, and idiosyncratic phrasing” (47).  These markers may be dialect, like the several dialects used so carefully by Twain in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  They may be something as simple as vocabulary preferences: “bucket” or “pail”?  “Sun up” or “sun rise”?  “Soda,” “pop” or “Coke”?  “Over at” or “over to”?  “Dinner” or “supper”?   Linguistic markers of place may be idiomatic grammar or usage, like Sherwood Anderson’s “I ain’t so queer.  I guess I showed him I ain’t so queer” (201); Louise Erdrich’s “I never really done much with my life, I suppose” (230); Larry McMurtry’s “Reckon you and her would have got it all straightened out if I hadn’t butted in?” (Last Picture Show 270).  Many writers believe that even the sounds of language reflect geographical place: Kansas-born William Stafford remarked on the “mossy, deadened sound” of the Northwest (Kowalewski 22); Ohio columnist Tim Hardin suggests that the nasality of New Yorkers comes from lack of oxygen in the Manhattan sky-scrapers (American Tongues); Paula Nelson quotes a homesteader who reported in a letter to folks back home that people in South Dakota “talked very loudly.  She discovered that the constant wind forced conversation into high volume” (xxi).  Howard Mohr made an entertaining career from a book called How to Talk Minnesotan, a “language system” built primarily on Guillory’s icons of geography and icons of voice.       

And place provides a characteristic manner of acting and reacting—a behavioral language, if you will—which locates a character in time and space.  John Steinbeck went so far as to say, “There is no question in my mind that places in America mark their natives, not only in their speech patterns, but physically—in build, in stance, in conformation.  Climate may have something to do with this as well as food supply and techniques of living; in any case, each of us can detect a stranger” (quoted in Stryk, Heartland ix).  In an essay titled “The Ancient People and the Newly Come,” Meridel Le Sueur writes, “The body repeats the landscape.  They are the source of each other and create each other” (17).  Jane Smiley used the line as an epigraph to her novel A Thousand Acres, and Kent Meyers echoed her sentiment: “He formed the place.  The place formed him.  They were part of each other” (Witness 17).   Even William Goyen—in many respects a postmodern language poet—has said, “I don’t think anyone ever recovers from the place he was born” (Gibbons 325). 

We recognize intuitively that Faulkner’s characters, as much as they reach toward universals, would not be Faulkner’s characters in Yoknapatawpha County, Iowa . . . and we recognize the behavior of Scandinavian immigrants Nelse and Signa in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913) and Garrison Keillor’s family from Lake Wobegon (1985) as exhibiting characteristically midwestern behavior:

It is supposed that Nelse Jensen, one of the six men at the dinner-table, is courting Signa, though he has been so careful not to commit himself that no one in the house, least of all Signa, can tell just how far the matter has progressed.  Nelse watches her glumly as she waits upon the table, and in the evening he sits on a bench behind the stove with his dragharmonika, playing mournful airs and watching her as she goes about her work.  When Alexandra asked Signa whether she thought Nelse was in earnest, the poor child hid her hands under her apron and murmured, “I don’t know, ma’m.  But he scolds me about everything, like as if he wanted to have me!”  (Cather 86)

Eight of us sat around the bed that first afternoon, taking turns holding Grandma’s hand so that if she had any sensation, it would be one of love.  Four more came that evening.  We talked in whispers, but didn’t talk much; it was hard to know what to say.  “Mother always said she wanted to go in her sleep,” my mother said.  “She didn’t want to linger.”  I felt that we should be saying profound things about Grandma’s life and what it had meant to each of us, but I didn’t know how to say that we should.  My uncles were uneasy.  The women saw to Grandma and wept a little now and then, a few friendly tears; the men only sat and crossed and uncrossed their legs, slowly perishing of profound truth, until they began to whisper among themselves—I heard gas mileage mentioned, and a new combine—and then they resumed their normal voices.  “I wouldn’t drive a Fairlane if you give it to me for nothing,” Uncle Frank said.  “They are nothing but grief.”  (Keillor 8)

Ted Kooser connects Midwest place and Midwest character in his poem “An Old Photograph,” capturing perfectly the midwestern emotional restraint and the reasons for it:

This old couple, Nils and Lydia
were married for seventy years.
Here they are sixty years old
and already like brother
and sister—small, lustreless eyes,
large ears, the same serious line
to the mouths.  After those years
spent together, sharing
the weather of sex, the sour milk
of lost children, barns burning,
grasshoppers, fevers and silence,
they were beginning to share
their hard looks.  How far apart
they sit; not touching at shoulder
or knee, hands clasped in their laps
as if under each pair was a key
to a trunk hidden somewhere,
full of those lessons one keeps
to himself. (5) 

More significant, however, are the writers’ own subtle habits of thought and attitude: Willa Cather and Sinclair Lewis, Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison, N. Scott Momaday and Adrian C. Louis, Jim Harrison and Wright Morris seem to bring a certain midwestern frame of reference even to material which is not specifically midwestern.1  Morris himself said as much: “the characteristics of this region have conditioned what I see, what I look for, and what I find in the world to write about.  So I believe in shearing off, in working and in traveling light.  I like a minimum of words arranged for a maximum effect. . . .  As the writer of the South inclines toward the baroque, and strives for the symbolic ornamental cluster, the writer on the plains is powerfully inclined to sheer the ornament off” (xii).

The Midwest did set—or find itself at the forefront of—several cultural and literary trends early in the twentieth century, and its landscape best accommodates the quintessential late twentieth-century American landscape symbol, the superhighway.  Nevertheless, the Midwest has lost much of its social, political, and literary clout in the past three decades . . . including pages in the Norton Anthology of American Literature.  Certainly the Midwest is no longer the literary capital of the Republic, as H. L. Mencken thought it was in 1920 when he wrote,
Where, then, is the good writing that goes on in the Republic done? In New York?  Not much of it.  New York is the home of literary artisans, not of literary artists . . . considering its population, the big town produces very little literature of genuine significance. . . . Draw a circle of two hundred miles radius around Chicago, and you will enclose four-fifths of the real literature of America—particularly four-fifths of the literature of tomorrow.  (13)

As James Shortridge points out (12-26, 82-96), the Midwest has been historically difficult to locate geographically.  Annie Dillard argues that “Pittsburgh is the Midwest’s eastern edge” (American 214), and while “high plains” would seem to offer a great deal of latitude in defining a western border, it does not: that point at which seed caps yield to Stetsons, work shoes to cowboy boots, and planted crops to cattle range is a narrow, fifty-mile band of America from Canada down to Texas.  People who live there pretty much agree that the Midwest—admittedly a region of many subregions—is roughly the region between the Missouri and the Ohio Rivers, an area of fewer “authored landscapes” than either the East or the South, but more populated than the Wild West.  Its dominant features of big sky and open fields give a feeling of emptiness.  The Midwest is the region of big wind, and Big Windy.  And of big waters, predominantly the Great Lakes, the Mississippi, and its tributaries.  “I think that the river / Is a strong brown god,” wrote T. S. Eliot in “The Dry Salvages,” “sullen, untamed and intractable, / Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier” (130).

There is, however, a significant human component to the Midwest, a population dispersed across the amplitudes in settlements of larger or smaller size, and it is these villages which most define the region.  “The tendency to ignore the place’s urban reality and industrial strength, which has been apparent in the popular literature since the 1920s, had not lessened at all by 1980,” notes Shortridge (80).  The Midwest still pictures itself as a patchwork of “lost Swede towns,” to use a phrase Carol Bly borrowed from F. Scott Fitzgerald (1), a network of agriculture-based villages.  “A dissonance of parts and people, we are a consonance of Towns,” wrote William Gass in 1958 (186). 

To think of the Midwest more as Main Street than as “hog butcher for the world” implies a view which may be nostalgic myth, as Herr and others argue, a will to recover that place in which “so many millions found some real substance to the American Dream” (Meinig 168).  Perhaps this view of the Midwest is an opposition to some Eastern, Western, Southern, urban Other: James Shortridge writes, “I will argue here that pastoralism and industry were segregated mentally: the former was assigned to a regional ‘box’ called Middle West; the latter, to one called East” (41).  Perhaps the Midwest’s traditional view of itself as a village is an indictment of the city: John Knoepfle claims that “the cities of America are, like taxes, designed for the movement of goods, and not for the comfort of people in their social and festive nature, so that they long for a courtesy in space that they do not find in the street and the boulevard” (“Crossing” 148).3  Perhaps the Midwest’s traditional view of itself as a village is defensive reaction to a national prejudice identified by Dana Gioia: “In most industrialized countries there is also a pervasive urban bias against agricultural areas.  In America that prejudice is focused on the Midwest which is seen as flat, characterless, and provincial. . . .  To the outsider there is less obvious local color—no accents, no dramatic social problems, less various scenery although ironically it is this same uniformity that gives it an unusually distinctive cultural identity” (92).

Open skies, open fields, straight roads from one lost Swede town to the next, reducing the prairie to a checkerboard.  That’s my Midwest, and the Midwest of the writers I will discuss in this book.         

Typically, Midwest writers begin with space.  As Franklin and Steiner suggest, they are not alone among American writers in this regard (3), but opening with landscape is a gambit so common as to be a cliché.  Asked how to write the midwestern poem, Dave Etter told James Hazard, “Just drop Keokuk, Kalamazoo, Milwaukee, Chicago into the poem.  But of course that’s superficial.  You have to capture the people, the flavor of the area.  You have to capture the expanse of it; you know, the highways here go on forever.  There are no mountains to block the view, the vision” (31).  “There was nothing but land,” Jim Burden remembers in Willa Cather’s My Antonia; “not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made” (8).  Rolvaag, like Cather in both My Antonia and O Pioneers!, opens his own pioneering novel Giants in the Earth with the big picture: “Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon. . . .   Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come. . . .  And sun!  And still more sun!”  Wright Morris begins his classic Ceremony in Lone Tree with the view from the window, which is nothing but space: “Come to the window.  The one at the rear of the Lone Tree Hotel.  The view is to the west.  There is no obstruction but the sky” (3).

Meridel Le Sueur opens with space, before moving to character: “Most of all one was born into space, into the great resonance of space, a magnetic midwestern valley through which the winds clashed in lassos of thunder and lightning at the apex of the sky, the very wrath of God” (17).  Even literary critics begin with the lay of the land:
The essential picture of rural Illinois today is from the air.  A mile above McLean County, descending to Bloomington, the land is a farmscape of rectangular geometry: square-mile sections of land enclosing soft modulations of hills, veined tracings of streams, and, early in April, dark brown fields furrowed to hypnotic effect.  Receding parallels lead the eye toward a vanishing point on the distant horizon.  Everything in the scene suggests a latitude, a limitless prospect of prosperity, and pastoral loveliness.  So the picture has been for a very long time. . . .” (Bray, Rediscoveries 14)

Amplitude presents both threat and opportunity. As Roderick Frazier Nash shows in Wilderness and the American Mind, most settlers in the pioneering era came to the landscape intent on transforming it, and the great expanses of empty space were an opponent against which humans struggle for identity and their sanity.  Even tourists, who came for rest and relaxation, felt the gloom.  In his 1835 A Tour on the Prairies, Washington Irving noted, “There is something inexpressibly lonely in the solitude of a prairie. . . .  We have the consciousness of being far, far beyond the bounds of human habitation; we feel as if moving in the midst of a desert world” (175).  Baron E. de Mandat-Grancy, visiting western Minnesota in the 1880s, found the landscape “gloomy in the extreme” (8).  The Washington Irving and French count were tourists; they could leave.  Per Hansa’s wife was a settler and could not leave.  She went crazy.  “It is hard for the eye to wander from sky line to sky line, year in and year out, without finding a resting place!” Rolvaag notes (413); “asylum after asylum was filled with disordered beings who had once been human.”  “It is like an iron country,” writes Cather of the Divide in winter, “and the spirit is oppressed by its rigor and melancholy” (O Pioneers! 187).  “In the Midwest, around the Lower Lakes, the sky in the winter is heavy and close, and it is a rare day, a day to remark on, when the sky lifts and allows the heart up,” writes William Gass in mid-twentieth century (173). 

On the other hand, as Nash also shows, Americans have always found something restorative in the amplitudes: a new Eden, a grace in the wild, space for personal growth and freedom.  N. Scott Momaday writes, “There is something about the heart of the continent that resides always in the end of vision, some essence of the sun and wind.  That man knew the possible quest.  There was nothing to prevent his going out; he could enter upon the land and be alive, could bear at once the great hot weight of its silence.  In a sense the question of survival had never been more imminent, for no land is more the measure of human strength” (House 101).  Open space may offer restoration, protection, a release from the dark anxieties and complexities of “civilization.”  This is the function of the Mississippi in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, of the prairie in Paul Gruchow’s The Necessity of Empty Places, and of open water in Hemingway’s “The Big Two-Hearted River”: “Nick did not want to go in there now. . . .  In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic.  In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure.  Nick did not want it” (180).

Attention to landscape inevitably emphasizes weather because, as Diane Dofva Quantic points out, “In a region where there are no natural barriers the great expanses exacerbate the weather’s natural violence, and the land’s products continue to influence the quality of life, no matter how far removed one imagines oneself to be from the land” (xii).  Drake Hokanson writes in his 1994  Reflecting a Prairie Town, “No one who has been around Paterson [Iowa], or anywhere else in the Midwest, very long, would deny that this climate is formed by great and dramatic weather” (35).  Patricia Hampl, after suggesting that “landscape plays a key role in the formation of the imagination . . . . it is the primer coat under all we can paint for ourselves and others” (125) recalls that her landscape as a young girl in St. Paul, Minnesota, “was all weather and not much else” (126).   Watching his marriage fall apart, Terry Reese in a Dave Etter poem subtitled “Boom Boom on B Street,” takes a shotgun to his old Oldsmobile:

It was the two feet of snow that did us in.
Man, what a blizzard that baby was
Lois, eyes hard as icicles, kept saying
she was finished with me, kaput,
was going home to Mother, getting out for good.
“Bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch,” I said,
as I had been saying for weeks and weeks,
knowing we were cracking up this winter,
what with all the snow, the goddamn snow. . . . (Alliance 109)

Susan Allen Toth titles her 2003 memoir of Midwest weather Leaning into the Wind, and in his 1891 Main-Travelled Roads, Hamlin Garland writes of wind: “But the third [wind upon Chicago] is the West of Southwest wind, dry, magnetic, full of smell of unmeasured miles of growing grain in summer, or ripening corn and wheat in autumn.  When it comes in winter the air glitters with incredible brilliancy” (207).  The wealth of wind and weather in the songs of Bob “Blowin’ in the Wind” Dylan is one reflection of his Minnesota origins (Pichaske, “Some Notes” 59).

Whatever the weather, those who stick with big sky—or big water—seem historically to develop a certain vision.  In a passage of The Music of Failure quoted by Toth, Bill Holm writes,

There are two eyes in the human head—the eye of mystery, and the eye of harsh truth—the hidden and the open—the woods eye and the prairie eye.  The prairie eye looks for distance, clarity, and light; the woods eye for closeness, complexity, and darkness.  The prairie eye looks for usefulness and plainness in art and architecture; the woods eye for the baroque and ornamental.  Dark old brownstones on Summit Avenue were created by a woods eye; the square white farmhouse and red barn are prairie eye’s work.  Sherwood Anderson wrote his stories with a prairie eye, plain and awkward, told in the voice of a man almost embarrassed to be telling them, but bullheadedly persistent to get at the meaning of the events; Faulkner, whose endless complications of motive and language take the reader miles behind the simple facts of an event, sees the world with a woods eye.  One eye is not superior to the other, but they are different.  To some degree, like male and female, darkness and light, they exist in all human heads, but one or the other seems dominant. (17)4

Kent Meyers corroborates Holm’s testimony: “Students of Native American art have noted that when Indian tribes—the Lakota/Dakota for instance—moved out of a woodland habitat onto the plains, their artwork changed.  Woodland art tends to be composed of curving lines and animal figures, whereas plains art consists of straight lines and geometric figures.  Surely this is the influence of the land on the imagination, the straight line of the prairie exerting itself” (Witness 88).  The prairie attracted settlers with a prairie eye, and further trained their children, and their children’s children, in a prairie sensibility: distance, clarity, and light.

With all its space, the Midwest is probably America as something commensurate with man’s capacity for wonder.  Momaday picks up this theme in the line which follows the passage quoted earlier: “neither had wonder been more accessible to the mind nor destiny to the will.”

Yet the Midwest’s combination of amplitude and population brings landscape directly to bear on social and cultural institutions.  Its fertile soil, and easily traversed landscape were ideally suited to homesteading: 160-acres—one quarter of a square mile of land—free to any native or immigrant willing to invest five years living upon and “improving” (i.e. cultivating) the claim.  Homesteading gave the Midwest that grid of mile roads—so recognizable from the air—four farm sites to the square mile, house and barn surrounded by a square grove and rectilinear fields.  The railroad companies which (subsidized by generous government grants) brought the settlers gave us the familiar pattern of a village every seven miles—three or four miles being a reasonable day’s ride for a farmer in a horse-drawn buckboard—villages far in excess of what the landscape really needed, chartered more as points to collect grain and sell lumber than as social or cultural centers.  While most of these villages are smaller today than they were fifty or a hundred years ago, 5 the Midwest remains “a consonance of Towns.”

The harmonic combination of space and population produced what Wallace Stegner calls “an American faith: that a new society striking boldly off from the old would first give up everything but axe and gun and then, as the pioneering hardships were survived, would begin to shape itself in new forms.  Prosperity would follow in due course.  A native character would begin to emerge, a character more self-reliant and more naturally noble than any that could be formed in tired and corrupt Europe, and new institutions would spring from the new social compact among free and classless men.  After an appropriate interval this society ought to find its voice in unmistakably native arts” (288).  In an essay “Midwestern Poetry: Goodbye to All That,” Lisel Mueller also draws a line from landscape through society to aesthetics:

What I am left with by way of definition is a body of poetry that owes its life to the heart of the heartland: the vast stretches of farmland, the rolling hills with their many shades of green, the great rivers and thousands of small lakes, the forests of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, the towns with their rectangular layouts, their elm-shaded porches, their Elks’ Clubs, and their dreary Main Streets.  Ultimately, it owes its life to a population of 19th century settlers, predominantly Protestant, predominantly British, German, and Scandinavian, whose society was founded on such principles as egalitarianism, individualism, and self-sufficiency.  The farmers, craftsmen, and merchants who settled the land carried out an experiment in grass-roots democracy that would have caused considerable misgivings among our skeptical and aristocratic Founding Fathers.  Without any authority other than their practical reason and a belief in individual human dignity, they set up self-governing communities which functioned well in the decades before industrialism changed the premises on which the society was based.  There was no colonial charter, no theocracy to govern public and private conduct; there was no elite of rank and culture nor, in the beginning, of money.  Hardship and isolation were accepted as the price for stability and, in many cases, eventual prosperity.  For these people, experience was the touchstone of knowledge.  As a result, the society was characterized by considerable anti-intellectualism and a distrust of “impractical,” abstract thinking. (It is unimaginable that, for example, transcendentalism or the art-for-art’s sake movement could have arisen in the Midwest.)  This was the region of log-cabin Presidents.  There was—and still is—pride in poverty turned success, obscurity turned accomplishment.  (2, 3)  

Mueller argues that free verse in the Midwest was “not a European import,” because the region’s “bias toward naturalness and against formalism was entirely consistent with the egalitarian heritage” (7).  The midwestern mentality described by Mueller transcends urban/rural and racial distinctions. Cyrus Colter—Afro-American, urban, late twentieth century—confirms the fact that midwestern thought is practical rather than theoretical: “Chicago is robust,” he writes.  “It’s less academic, precious, and mandarin—less Byzantine [than New York].  That’s how I see it, but also how (more important) I feel it, as a writer” (Gibbons 331).

As David Marion Holman notes, the characteristic midwestern literary mode has always been realism (49).6  The Midwest was, as it were, the mother lode of realism in America.  “Realism in America would have been nothing without Chicago; Chicago was nothing without realism,” observes Alfred Kazin in A Writer’s America (183); the city “would never be altogether right for an avant-garde” (184).  This was true even before Chicago was Chicago.  In 1834 Dr. Daniel Drake told the Union Literary Society of Miami University that the future literature of the West would be “rough rather than elegant,” and “pragmatic” (Flanagan 208).  In the years between 1834 and Garland’s Crumbling Idols (1895), “perhaps the most important quality shared by the western writers . . . was their slow but perceptible trend toward realism. . . . From the very beginning, the more serious middle western writers were conscious of the need for verisimilitude” (Flanagan 210-11).  In A Son of the Middle Border, Garland formulated the principle in seven words: “truth [is] a higher quality than beauty” (374); he was simply repeating Joseph Kirkland: “Let only the truth be told” (Bray 6).  Writers of the Chicago Renaissance—Masters, Sandburg, Dreiser, Dell, Anderson, even Vachel Lindsay—are remarkable not for complex theories borrowed from the Continent, but for their insights into human nature and social and economic conditions.  They are not philosophers, but observers. The same could be said of Garrison Keillor.  A century after Garland, Midwesterners are still mostly mud-on-the-shoes realists, prone to draw a dichotomy between style and content and to favor content over style.  They are practical people.  A Polish graduate student entangled in theory at an urban university remarked to me a few years ago, “People where you live always have their hands on something real—an ear of corn, a chainsaw, a cow’s teat.  Many people in this city have never in their lives had their hands on anything more substantial than the stems of their cocktail glasses.”  In a talk at Southwest State given on September 12, 2000, visiting fellow Paul Nielson (raised on a farm, Ph. D. from the University of Chicago) observed, “aesthetics versus practicality has always been an issue on the farm, where the ugliest buildings are often among the most useful.  Sentimentalists want family farms to be lovely in a Terry Redlin way, with no mess and no fences to keep the cows in.  We had visitors to our farm from the cities who asked why we didn’t mow the hay fields more, to keep the grass down.”         

The reformist component of Midwest literature bears special comment.  Holman sees the two as related: “Realism—the ‘democratic‘ mode—is appropriate for the region the midwest writer depicts because the history of the Midwest and its inhabitants is inextricably entangled with populist idealism. . . .  Implicit in the idea of the Midwest is the belief that it is a region that holds the promise of Jacksonian democracy” (51).  While the Heartland has a reputation these days for social and political conservatism, leftist or progressive politics have until recently been a tradition in the region: the Knights of Labor, the Farmers’ Alliance, the Granger Movement, the People’s Party, the NonPartisan League, the International Workers of the World, Milo Reno’s Farm Holiday Movement, Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party, Michigan’s Students for a Democratic Society, the National Farm Organization, even Iowa Governor Terry Branstad’s activation of the state foreclosure moratorium law during the farm crises of the 1980s.  Writers especially have been social activists.  After publishing Main-Traveled Roads Hamlin Garland, whose political populism and literary “veritism” were inextricably linked, barnstormed the Midwest, reading stories and speaking at gatherings of the Grange and the People’s Party.  Sinclair Lewis incorporated into Main Street the observations of Miles Bjornstam, “the Red Swede,” and an overheard conversation among local farmers:

There you got it—good market, and these towns keeping us from it.  Gus, that’s the way these towns work all the time.  They pay what they want to for our wheat, but we pay what they want us to for their clothes.  Stowbody and Dawson foreclose every mortgage they can, and put in tenant farmers.  The Dauntless lies to us about the Nonpartisan League, the lawyers sting us, the machinery-dealers hate to carry us over bad years, and then their daughters put on swell dresses and look at us as if we were a bunch of hoboes.  Man, I’d like to burn this town! (223)

In O Pioneers!, Lou Bergson suggests that if Carl Lindstrum and his buddies had any nerve, they’d “get together and march down to Wall Street and blow it up.  Dynamite it, I mean” (112).  Robert Bray argues that author William Allen White, “while much better known as a stalwart of the Republican party, devoutly wished to be remembered as a progressive in his fiction” (4).  The socialist perspective permeates the work of Carl Sandburg, who rode the “Red Special” in 1908 with Eugene V. Debs and in 1910 became personal secretary to Emil Seidel, socialist mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  It colors the poems of Edgar Lee Masters and Vachel Lindsay (“Why I Voted the Socialist Ticket,” “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan”), and the work of Meridel Le Sueur (whose father was the Socialist mayor of Minot, North Dakota), Tillie Olsen, and Sioux City’s Josephine Herbst who, John Knoepfle recalls, described the Communist Party scene in New York “as a tempest in a pisspot . . . that meant nothing to farmers and laborers in the Midwest” (137).  Section III, part 4 of Thomas McGrath’s Letter to an Imaginary Friend, Part I is a hymn to the memory of a local wobblie:

As tough as whang-leather, with a brick-topped mulish face,
A quiet talker.  He read The Industrial Worker,
Though I didn’t know what the paper was at the time.
The last of the real Wobs—that, too, I didn’t know,
Couldn’t. (17)

Robert Bly’s anti-war activism grew out of this tradition, and echoes can be heard in the writing of other midwestern poets, including Dave Etter, John Knoepfle and Bill Holm:

It’s not that I’m unhappy being a Democrat, it’s that I would be a whole lot happier being a Populist—a real bumping, jumping, thumping Populist. . . .
(Etter, Selected 149)

some damn odin
eats us up dont you think
one by one by one
he holds us upside down
by our ankles and what
can we do with him
nothing I can tell you
(Knoepfle, poems 83)

My dad told me how
the sheriff would ride out to the farm
to auction off the farmer’s goods for the bank.
Neighbors came with pitchforks
to gather in the yard:
“What am I bid for this cow?”
Three cents.  Four cents.  No more bids.
If a stranger came in and bid a nickel,
a circle of pitchforks gathered around him,
and the bidding stopped.
(Holm, Dead 28)        

In the Midwest, Mueller argues, social justice and humanism were social traditions before they were literary traditions (7).  Garland, whom even Herr credits as “voicing the moment when the Heartland was being constructed in its current formulation” (94), wrote succinctly, “The merely beautiful in art seemed petty, and success at the cost of the happiness of others a monstrous egotism.” (Son 374).  This quest for social justice is found even in writers who write far from the villages and towns—say, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, Kurt Vonnegut, Kenneth Patchen, James T. Farrell.  James Seaton writes that though neither Charles J. Sykes’s Profscam or Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind appeals to regional prejudices, “the Midwestern origin of their authors betrays itself in their muckraking” (204).  

There are corollaries.  Midwesterners are traditionally skeptical of theory, look to experience as the touchstone of knowledge, react with simple pragmatism.  “How the devil do I know / if there are rocks in your field,” writes Iowan James Hearst in a poem called “Truth”; “plow it and find out . . . the connection with a thing / is the only truth that I know of, / so plow it” (Stryk 79).  In High Water, Richard Bissell humorously constructs the “theory” of an accident on the Illinois River:

“Why did that barge dive, Kid?  Why did that goddam old number 36 decide to sink on us?”
“Well, I’ll tell you,” says the Kid, taking out a stick of Beeman’s Pepsin Gum, “I’ve got a theory about that.”
“I’ll bet it’s a killer,” I said.  “So go ahead, pride of Alton, Illinois, and tell us the theory. . . .”
“Well to make a long story short my theory is like this: I figure the river was to blame.  I think some water got in that barge somehow and she sunk.” (132)

In Tim O’Brien’s novel Northern Lights, one of the older locals chides a youngster for losing common sense when lost in the woods:

“Don’t know how you coulda got lost in the first place,” the man was saying.  “But I sure would’ve built me a big fire, first thing.”
“We did that.”
“A big fire. . . .”
The man shook his head.  “Stupid,” he finally said.
Perry nodded again.  “Pretty dumb.”
“Stupid, that’s what.” (288, 89)

The midwestern style is plainspeak.  John T. Flanagan notes in Midwest writers “a definite lack of artistry, of polish. . . . The English write better, but the Americans have something to say” (232).  The midwestern narrator is rarely flamboyant or self-celebrating.  Usually he is reticent, unpolished, apologetic, ambivalent, confused, unpretentious.  “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ but that ain’t no matter,” says Huck Finn.   Narrator, author, and central characters are often dubious, lost, confused.  “I have missed something,” Sherwood Anderson’s George Willard thinks to himself; “I have missed something Kate Swift was trying to tell me” (166).  John Knoepfle notes, “Carol Kennicott’s own difficulty in defining herself and the difficulty Lewis had in deciding whether she was to be a heroine or another object of satire are as much a part of the image of Gopher Prairie as the goings on at the Thanatopsis Club and the Jolly Seventeen” (“Crossing” 109). The midwestern narrator is nothing unusual: “I am in other respects / like everyone here,” announces Knoepfle’s own “Princess Candidate, Sangamon County Fair” (Sangamon 95).   Sings Bob Dylan,

I’m just average, common too
I’m just like him, the same as you
I’m everybody’s brother and son
I ain’t different from anyone
It ain’t no use a-talkin’ to me
It’s just the same as talking to you. (128)

Midwest humor—it exists—is wry, understated, offhand, the humor of Mark Twain, James Thurber, Garrison Keillor, Langston Hughes’ Jessie B. Simple stories.  Also, midwestern writers contain their stylistic and structural experiments within a relatively narrow range.  Imagism, surrealism, mysticism, and Field of Dreams magical realism—all of which can indeed be found in midwestern literature—are usually so alloyed with realism as to slip by almost unnoticed.  Even a Robert Bly deep-image poem begins with “Those great sweeps of snow that stop suddenly six feet from the house” (148) or ends, having “given up all ambition,” with the flake of snow that has just fallen on the horse’s mane (34).

So the midwestern style: realism bordering on naturalism, with elements of humanism and social critique.  Plain, colloquial speech, with elements of self-conscious doubt.  Guarded experimentation.  Limited theory.   

Of course it is a commonplace these days that Americans know little of their country’s geography, that they are innocent of America as a landscape of rivers, mountains, towns, and thus places.  And place is missing from a great deal of writing done in the Midwest these days, especially the work of academic writers or folks associated with literary centers like The Loft in Minneapolis, and the Fiction Collective in Normal, Illinois.  Don DeLillo’s much-celebrated novel White Noise is set in some midwestern town so lacking in recognizable markers of place that it’s hard to identify a state, let alone a town.  Charles Baxter’s Five Oaks, Michigan—which has the sound of a developer’s pipedream—totally lacks recognizable character.  The town’s vanilla flavor may be intentional—Jill Gidmark observes that “Baxter’s use of the Midwest signifies neither conventional nostalgia nor rootedness. . . .  The reader is never certain just where the center lies” (Greasley 55)—but in a story like “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb,” Baxter offers not a single identifying feature, nothing to particularize it, no building, street, habit of speech that would distinguish Five Oaks from any vanilla-flavored suburb anywhere in the United States.  Five Oaks is the Midwest town as non-place.  So too is Prairie Junction, setting for Jane Hamilton’s much-ballyhooed A Map of the World: no feature of landscape or voice lets readers know they’re in Wisconsin, not Missouri, New Hampshire, or, for that matter, western Poland.  Hamilton’s characters speak and act like the urban transplants they are, dine on Chicken Almond Ding, buy a dairy herd of Golden Guernseys because Howard is “a philosophical and poetical farmer” who “liked their color and the way ‘Golden Guernsey’ floated off his tongue” (3, 4). 

Editors Kevin Stein and G. E. Murray proudly claim that the poets in Illinois Voices: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry—a collection depressingly different from Lucien Stryk’s two famous Heartland anthologies—“offers a gloss for that of the nation at large” (xxiii), a panorama of didacticism, modernism, Imagism, surrealism, Objectivism, Deep Imagism, Confessionalism, feminism, Afro-American, Latino/Latina, and Asian American voices, gay and lesbian poetry, New Narrativism, New Formalism, LANGUAGE and “performance” poetry (xxii).  Poet Julie Herrick White, whose work is included in Elton Glaser and William Greenway’s (more impressive) anthology I Have My Own Song for It: Modern Poems of Ohio, lived in the state barely a year.  “I never really got to know Steubenville,” she admits ingenuously; “Thirteen months were not enough” (93).  “The development of writing workshops in the universities has been a disaster,” Robert Bly wrote way back in 1975; “The poetry out of the workshops is worse and worse every year. . . . There are exceptions, but most of it is daydream-head poetry” (“Writer’s Sense” 75). 

But writers like these have always been among us, and they have never lasted very long.  In Lake Wobegon Days, Garrison Keillor remembers a humanities class at the University of Minnesota, taught by an instructor “who sounded to be from someplace east of the East,” and a composition instructor who, while urging students to write from personal experience, “said it with a smirk, suggesting that we didn’t have much, so instead I wrote the sort of dreary, clever essay I imagined I’d appreciate if I were him” (22).  Keillor gives up the clever essays (and the university), returns to Lake Wobegon, and writes a book that people read.  The writing from the Midwest which has survived, and will survive, is harmonious with midwestern society, which is itself a result of an almost Darwinian process of natural selection as the environment tests and sorts new-comers, and as newcomers adjust to their environment.7 

The weight of historical evidence suggests that the Midwest supports some cultural values while being subtly unsuited to others because, while landscape and society engage in reciprocal interaction, geography is more powerful and ultimately proves inexorable.  In public lectures, essayist Paul Gruchow was fond of warning that social systems which have not been in harmony with the natural system, which have demanded more of it than it could deliver without undue stress, or that have taken from it more than they returned, have not, historically, survived for any great length of time.  We might press Gruchow’s thought further: philosophical systems which are not in harmony with the social, economic, and natural landscapes will not survive for any great length of time in that geography.  Historian Paula M. Nelson titled her 1996 study of West River country in South Dakota The Prairie Winnows Out Its Own.  Frederick C. Stern, after arguing for ten pages against the Midwest as an identifiable literary region, does a 180-degree about-face beginning with the section heading “And Yet . . . and Yet and Still . . .” (20).  Landscape, he decides, “does have an influence on the way the mind and feelings work” (22, italics his). 

Dave Etter, William Kloefkorn, Norbert Blei, Linda Hasselstrom, Bill Holm, Jim Heynen, and Jim Harrison are perfectly conscious of the media, academia, and the national (and international) literary scenes . . . although their native pragmatism may make them skeptical and therefore light in the theory department. Harrison especially offers a paradigm of the midwestern writer lured by the bright lights of New York, Hollywood, and Paris, who had to find his way home mentally and stylistically.  The others traveled as well, in geography and style, and as I will suggest, the writing of each contains profound dislocations and ambivalences.  All seven, however, write within the tradition I have been describing: they grow out of and extend that tradition, modifying it when pressured by necessity or opportunity.  Each has, like the author of this book, one leg in his or her place and the other leg somewhere else.  You need to know the world, Cather once observed, to see the parish.  The rootedness of each of these authors in a particular place, and the ways they alternately break and preserve those roots, is the subject the chapters which follow.