Is There Such a Thing As Midwestern Literature?

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Is There Such a Thing As Midwestern Literature?

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jan 24, 2010, 6:02 pm

It seems that the Northeast dominates most of American novels that receive much attention, while the South has its darker, drunken literary past (Faulkner) or spicy semi-religious voices (Flannery O'Connor). Then there's the West, the voices of the frontier (Cormac McCarthy). But does Midwestern literature have a similar identity? Can we ever get beyond naming Smiley's A Thousand Acres as the great Midwestern Novel? And is it? Why?

jan 24, 2010, 10:50 pm

I haven't thought about Jane Smiley (b.1949) for about a thousand years. I read everything she wrote when I was in college getting my lit degree (I don't think it was all assigned--I read one of her books and ended up reading most of the rest). For some reason, I remember being consistently annoyed by her and her work--and I can't for the life of me remember why. I think I need to give her another look before I can comment on A Thousand Acres.

I just found her on Wikipedia and discovered that she grew up in the town where I live today, and she also went to the same high school that my son attended (of course a generation or so before he went there). I had no idea.

Midwestern literature? Sure, why not. However, I'll just throw this out and see if anyone bites, to start the discussion. Finding an "identity" for Midwestern literature may be more difficult than other regions, like the South, for example, because you're talking about a huge and diverse area: Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota. As a resident of Missouri, I don't feel as though I immediately identify with nor do I have a great deal of affinity for someone from Minnesota, for example.

I'd be interested to hear what others think.

jan 24, 2010, 11:08 pm

I agree that the Midwest is a more difficult region to pigeonhole. For every person who thinks Jane Smiley or Willa Cather are the epitome of Midwestern lit, there's likely to be another who would point to Saul Bellow with his great oeuvre of Chicago-centric stories, or to someone else entirely.

So maybe the first question is, what is the Midwest?

jan 24, 2010, 11:44 pm

>3 rosalita:. What is the Midwest? Using the Census Bureau to define the Midwest, "one of four georgraphic regions within the United States," the region consists of 12 states: Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota.

That's the literal definition. Does anyone define the region differently? Is there a "midwestern mindset"?

jan 25, 2010, 11:17 am

>2 labwriter:. I think that even beyond identifying with someone from another Midwestern state, sometimes it's hard to identify with someone from a different area of your own state. Even in MO, I'm pretty sure that a "typical" St. Louisan would have trouble understanding life in, say, the Bootheel, and probably even Kansas City. I suspect that the only "Midwestern mindset" we have is that we are somehow a little more low-key and thus wiser than the East or West coast.

And that's what I like about the "Midwest."

Redigerat: jan 29, 2010, 10:00 am

"What is the Midwest"--a thought provoking question...I think it's easier for me to answer--because for a considerable amount of time --I lived elsewhere--and therefore have a some thing to compare. Due to time in the military--I ended up in Southern California-- and clearly remember the day I was in a Hallmark store and had an IOWA sweatshirt on--and another customer --asked if I really went to IOWA--or was from Iowa. That began a conversation-- and a way to "connect" and I realized --that I was sort of "missing" the Midwest!! ...of course when one is just out of school--college or whatever--one wants to get as far away from where grew up as possible... at least --I did.

The standard midwest--is Garrison Keillor, Hamlin Garland, Sinclair mind is going blank now.... Oh--I just finished listening to "Boom- voices of the sixties "by Tom Brokaw- it was my era --and I guess from a Midwest viewpoint--- and sort of feel a connection to him--because he was in my cousin's English class at the University of So Dakota in Vermillion--and I have also been to Vermillion-- ...thanks to Michelle Hoover who invited me to this group--I hadn't figured out how to proceed-and hope I'm not too out of line!!

jan 29, 2010, 1:06 pm

Thank you for the invitation. Mostly when I look at regionalism, it is connected to art of the 1930s, but yes I think there is a midwestern literature with distinctive elements (much of it out of print however). And Jane Smiley would not have come immediately to mind, Moo and Thousand Acres aside. I also discount Robert Waller who made his ill-gotten pile off Bridges of Madison County and ditched Iowa as fast as he could. There is, for example, the sort of anti-Midwest literature of the early decades of the 20th-century: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson; Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters (poems); Main Street by Sinclair Lewis; The Tattooed Countess by Carl Van Vechten. Besides Jane Smiley, there are some contemporary authors -- much of the work of Lorrie Moore (perhaps especially her newest, A Gate at the Stairs), the recent works of Marilynne Robinson (esp. Gilead and Home), Vance Bourjilay's Now Playing at Canterbury, the poetry of Ted Kooser and James Wright, most of the work of Louise Erdrich (she even runs a bookstore in the Minneapolis area), The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, and a number of others -- whose work seems very grounded in the Midwest as place (the Indian reservations have to count I think). Not to mention all those folks we do not necessarily think of as writing about the Midwest but maybe should (Mark Twain's writings about Missouri, Ferrell's Studs Lonigan, Richard Wright, Willa Cather, Ole Rolvaag, etc.) and products of the Iowa Writer's Workshop (Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, Margaret Alexander, etc., etc.). More in my area of research, great regionalist writers who were women tend to be ignored (e.g., Harriet Arnow) and Iowa's Ruth Suckow is certainly one of them. In short, I think the Midwest has generated a large number of great writers and made significant contributions to literature, even if we think about them sometimes in other terms than "Midwestern" (Cather, Twain, Richard Wright). To labwriter's point, the real problem with defining a "Midwestern" literature is that it deals with a region that is more diverse in some ways and had more kinds of experiences that are written about, experiences that happened in a shorter space of time than is true of most regions (Far West excepted perhaps) --e.g., upstart urbanization (literature about Chicago), pioneering (Rolvaag, Cather, Twain); stiffling small town life and decline; immigrant experience; Indian reservations; etc. There is less of "mindset" to it as might be true of the Old South than of yet another group confronting the realities of the place, whether that is being black in Chicago newly come from the South, the insularity of small towns, the harsh realities of life on an Indian reservation, the godawful weather, etc.

feb 1, 2010, 4:02 pm

#7 - "There is, for example, the sort of anti-Midwest literature of the early decades of the 20th-century: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson; Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters (poems); Main Street by Sinclair Lewis; The Tattooed Countess by Carl Van Vechten."

I'm a little curious what you mean by "anti-Midwest". This past fall I took a trip to the Spoon River Valley with some friends and we read portions of The Spoon River Anthology along our trip. As far as I know ELM did draw his inspiration from one of the cemeteries in central Illinois.(...but I could be misinformed?)

What do you consider the distinctive elements of Midwestern literature? I guess I was just going with a definition of works written about/in or inspired by the Midwest.

Redigerat: apr 2, 2010, 11:17 am

Peace Like a River might be a good recent example.

feb 12, 2010, 7:53 pm

Main Street by sinclair Lewis & Winesberg Ohio by Sherwood anderson would be called "anti-Mid-West"because they show the area in an unfavorable light. There are quite a few novels whose main character considers him/her/self stuck in a
crummy town & wants to escape to the big city. Dawn Powell's My Home is far away is another.
More recent novels do not use this theme as much, perhaps not because the Midwest is getting better, but the whole coulntry is becoming the same place.

feb 13, 2010, 3:51 am

I'm uncertain, too, about what you mean by "anti". A book that settles for boosterism probably isn't a good book. A lot of celebrated southern literature depicts the South in pretty unflattering terms. The same can be true for the Midwest.

Garrison Keillor is an interesting example because he writes about a certain kind of Midwest in a manner that is both celebrating it and satirizing it. I think his vision is darker than it's commonly made out to be. (I notice the touchstones aren't working for his name--Midwesterners get no respect.

The Midwest sections of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections capture a certain flavor, too, and the changes that come with this generation.

mar 8, 2010, 12:04 am

Michael Perry (Coop is his latest) definitely needs to be included in any discussion of current midwestern writers.

mar 29, 2010, 11:33 am

Sometimes, we in North Dakota feel like the forgotten part of the midwest. When people generalize about the Midwest, much of what they say doesn't really apply to us.
How about Laura Snelling?
I think I read somewhere recently that of the major living writers North Dakota has produced, only one lives in North Dakota.
To me, I think of Midwest writing as books set in small towns, farms, & ranches, revealing the advantages & disadvantages of that lifestyle. The protagonists should be people who love living there, not those who can't wait to get out.
I'm not trying to offend those of you who live in major cities, but to me, a story set entirely in Chicago, St Louis, or even the Twin Cities, isn't all that Midwestern. Paula

mar 29, 2010, 11:42 am

Larry Woiwode is from North Dakota.

Redigerat: apr 12, 2010, 6:15 pm

We actually have alot of authors from North Dakota how many of them actually still live here I don't know.

Lauraine Snelling
Roxanne Henke
Louise Erdrich
Peter Branvold he writes westerns
Chuck Klosterman
Jennie Shortridge
Larry Watson
Eric Sevaried
Paula Winskye
And our most famous North Dakota author Louis L'Amour

Just to name a few