The Midwest in Our Heads
Midwest is a tricky term. It takes a reckless topographer to draw its boundaries on a map of North America. There's a lot of very differentiated space between SoCal and what our grandfathers called back-East. Not that the opinion of geologists counts much in this heady realm of subjective geography. Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby said he hailed from the Midwest town of San Francisco. Nick Carraway, in the same novel, came from Minnesota, whose dull life made him restless. He went to New York City to learn how to make money. The borders the novel draws are of a East Coast rife with dishonesty, selfishness, cynical sophistication and a sleepy but solid Midwest still anchored in traditional moral values.
A century on from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920s, we are still at the mercy of similar generalities that like all clichés have a twisted root or two in reality. Flyover country is in fact considered not worth a stop by many East and West Coast residents bustling back and forth overhead. Middle America—or with a throb of ad-agency warmth, the Heartland—does evoke small towns full of Northern European descendants, Protestant steeples and Evangelicals enthusing in concrete tents. Here hometown and travelling salesmen are more than the punchline of old jokes and conservative politics like to dress up as Family Values.
Recent changes in where immigrants come from and choose to settle have altered this picture as has the vitality of university cities and Blue (Democratic) States. Metropolitan areas have survived, some even mushrooming. However, in readers’ minds (and they are what we are concerned with here) the middle of the country is unprogressive and culturally flat even when strewn with mounts and valleys.
Looked back at now, Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, for all it’s Roaring-Twenties glamour, seems less a step forward than backward from the radical changes in life-style that appeared just before WWI. After all, the chastened Nick Carraway returns from Eastern wickedness to embrace Heartland moral security. Personal cruelty and dirty money may have ruled in Long Island but Nick would have found that divorce had plague-status and a decent abortionist hard to find among the tall corn. In Babbitt-land, he would have to forget the flame of modernist culture and tune in to hymn singing.
We associate modernism with the 1920s, but it and challenges to Heartland values actually began earlier. Sherwood Anderson wrote his key book, Winesburg, Ohio, in 1916. It looks back at the denizens of a small Ohio town like the one he knew as a boy. His originality is to exclude the usual loquacious scenery of a novel and cut to a unique scene in the life of the character under observation. It’s the moment when they reveal the essence of their life. Revelation may come through fruitless rebellion, bitter acceptance of defeat or a bout of near madness. It rarely comes from a sudden dash for freedom, which is surely the author’s point. The very American theme of rupture, flight and re-beginning will inform his book by its absence. In his own self-nurtured myth, repeated and polished in his various memoirs, he tells of his own moment of truth. As a stressed-out small-town businessman, he one day stopped dictation mid-sentence and walked out of the office never to return. He was off to Chicago to write about Winesburg.
Chicago was one of those metropolitan islands in the amorphous mid-continent that raised two fingers to the Heartland ethos. Edgar Lee Masters had written Spoon River Anthology there in 1914 about his boyhood homes in Central Illinois. It was a free verse epic that took a gossip columnist’s view of two hundred and twelve characters, removing the lid from the lurid stew of provincial life. Spoon River surely led to Winesburg. But Anderson was, fortunately, no poet and knew about narrow focus. His prose, a bow to Gertrude Stein, was simple and direct. It would lead to that of Ernest Hemingway, then a teenager in a Chicago suburb.
But what Anderson says in his prose is as far from Stein’s self-conscious language as it is from Hemingway’s escape into action. The movement of Anderson’s people is limited to a mooch in front of Ed Griffith’s Saloon or a brisk walk to Winesburg’s outskirts when tired of their own company indoors. No-one is going any place till finally young George Willard, his mother’s grip loosened by her death, shaking in his new boots, boards the train for Cleveland. George, who worked as a reporter for the local paper, has served Anderson as an ear gathering the confidences of the massively unfulfilled town folk. The reader hopes that changing his address will help him grow out of his costive view of sex. The whole town seemed to share it and Anderson himself appears not to have entirely avoided infection. Later in his writing life he did succumb to the influence of D. H. Lawrence in matters of the flesh. This brought some relief to his characters but did not improve his books. The age old advice to young writers holds true. Don’t meddle with your neuroses. Write about them.