Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Writing the Midwest: History, Literature, and Regional Identity

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Writing the Midwest: History, Literature, and Regional Identity

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. In this article I discuss the function of history in constructing

regional identity and explore the ways in which the American Midwest differs from other widely recognized regions--New England, the South, and the West--in the kinds of historical figures and narratives that create a regional distinctiveness in the eyes of residents and writers. Whereas other regions tend to locate identity in a limited number of well-known figures and events from the past and to generalize them to the region as a whole, in the Midwest meaning is discerned on a more limited, place-by-place basis, in terms of more strictly local events and personages. This understanding of a particular kind of historically based identity is made especially clear in contemporary nonfiction from the Midwest, which collectively creates a dense mosaic of local meanings in a landscape conventionally seen by outsiders as largely empty of interest and significance. Keywords: Midwest, nonfiction literature, regional identity.

In a personal essay entitled "The Landfill of Memory, the Landscape of the Imagination," C. J. Hribal reflects on the experience of growing up near Hortonville, Wisconsin, the sort of place that instills in its residents the gnawing knowledge that you're in the middle of the middle of nowhere, at least as far as the rest of the country's concerned. Flyover country, as we're known to the coasts. You say to someone you're from Wisconsin and their eyes glaze over. Oh, yes, they say. Winter. Cheese. MOOOOOO! Repeated a few million times, that sort of gets to your self-esteem....And even if you never leave the state, you know what they're saying about you. But it's not that so much as the feeling of insignificance that gnaws at you.... Wisconsin is one of those girl- or guy-next-door states. Not your first choice to ask out, but if New York is busy, you might think about giving Wisconsin a call. Wisconsin knows it's being called on the rebound, and is good-natured about it. (Hribal 1992, 107)

At the same time, Hribal knows that this nagging insecurity coexists with another, equally powerful kind of knowledge, one that builds up gradually through longterm residence, through the repeated experience of traveling through the rural landscape both singly and in the company of neighbors. Upon moving to Wisconsin from the Chicago suburbs as a child, Hribal began studying maps of his township because he was aware that "People knew where the rivers oxbowed or spread out close to the roadway, where fog was likely, what houses had gone up on which hills, who had a place on the river for sheepshead fishing and who didn't. I wanted to know this, too" (1992, 96). Hribal gradually achieved this kind of intensely local knowledge, and despite the fact that he left the state as a young man, that he and his friends "wanted to be where nobodyknewus' over time he came to revalue and revisit both the Wisconsin landscape and the patterns of life that gave it texture and meaning, moving in adulthood to Milwaukee and writi ng two books that "peopled a whole town of people I'd never met but knew existed. The landfill of my memory; the landscape of my imagination" (p. 106).

Hribal's experience is grimly familiar to many midwestern expatriates. I grew up about 15 miles from Hortonville, and I frequently have to explain to the New Englanders who currently surround me that Wisconsin is not, say, Minnesota, that residents of the two states see themselves as very distinct from each other, their respective ethnicities and economies, politics and dialects-not to mention their loyalties to the Packers or the Vikings--being different enough to matter both to them and to anyone else who takes the time to look closely. I have also had to explain that I grew up in a paper-mill town and not on a farm, that the Midwest is urban and suburban as well as rural, industrial as well as agricultural. I hold up my knowledge gained on the ground in contrast to the haze of generalities through which others regard the region, and smile ruefully at the gap between them. …

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