Magazine article Modern Age

Defending a Few Hills and Valleys

Magazine article Modern Age

Defending a Few Hills and Valleys

Article excerpt

From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920 - 1965 By Jon Lauck (University of Iowa Press, 2017)

From the end of the Civil War to the end of World War I, the Midwest reigned politically, economically, and socially preeminent among regions of the United States. During that time, the area produced five out of nine presidents and remained prosperous, wracked neither by the burgeoning class strife of the industrial Northeast nor the post-Reconstruction malaise of the South. America may have been born on the East Coast, but it grew to maturity between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. It was there that Americans came closest to realizing the ideal of Jeffersonian independence.

Today the Midwest's glory days are behind it. Last November, the political class was unpleasantly surprised to find out that people still lived there, and that some of them even vote. Intrepid scribes from New York and Washington parachuted into the Rust Belt as if it were Kiev or Baghdad. They conducted themselves like foreign correspondents in their own country, all hoping to find out what came over their provincial countrymen. This impulse to figure out what's wrong with midwesterners, with their authoritarian personalities and paranoid style, has a long history. There is always something the matter with Kansas.

A new book by Jon Lauck, From Warm Center to Ragged Edge, goes back to the early twentieth century to find out "how the Midwest as a region faded from our collective imagination, fell off the map, and became an object of derision." It builds on his previous book, The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History, which argues for a return to forgotten traditions of regional study. This time, Lauck focuses on the ways midwestern literature was dismissed by the national--which is to say, eastern--literary establishment and how midwestern authors tried to push back against the caricature of a bland, repressive, cultureless wasteland whose only worthy literature was about trying to flee from it. In the words of a Harper's editor in 1950 that express the snobbishness of the time, "Only nobodies lived west of the Alleghenies."

The image of the Midwest as cultural wilderness was first put forth by The Nations literary editor Carl Van Doren in 1921. Grouping together works by novelists Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the poet Edgar Lee Masters, Van Doren described what he called the "revolt from the village." To this day, Van Dorens condescending depiction is a theme of literary criticism about the era. A 2011 book on Grace Metalious's Peyton Place, for example, talks about the "hagiographic status" of the small town, situating its subject in a tradition of shattering the "carefully guarded belief in the nation's small towns as the purest, most upright, and moral places in the land."

Yet Lauck meticulously assembles evidence that many midwestern authors did not see their own work in this way. Fitzgerald's most famous character, Nick Carraway, first describes the region as the "ragged edge of the universe." Later, after coming to know New York, he regards it more positively as the "warm center of the world." Though The Great Gatsby is not generally mentioned in the same list as Main Street, Spoon River Anthology, and other more typical village-revolt literature, it shares some qualities with them as well as posing interpretive challenges. While the main character leaves the Midwest for an exciting life in the big city, he does return home, having grown quite disillusioned with the eastern elite.

Nor was a village revolt typical of the Midwest's literature at the time. Masters, for example, nursed an unfashionable affection for the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley. He also seems to have despised Chicago, the closest midwestern equivalent to an eastern metropolis. Sherwood Anderson expressed "confusion" about Van Doren's interpretation to its author himself. …

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