Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What is Midwest Culture; A call for your comments

All this moving around has sparked some new observations and has me wondering; what is it about trying to maintain a Midwest character in China that is so exhausting and futile?

During college I was convinced that the Midwest was the most generic place on Earth: flat, no wilderness yet no cosmopolitan areas either, strip malls, K-marts, gray skies for half the year, corn fields. Picturing it? If you grew up in rural or suburban Midwest you were stuck being aware of all the extreme hobbies and cultural scenes of the rest of the country, yet had to make do with what the region could provide. You could only go so far into these interests before you either had to settle on something else or bail for one of the coasts or Rockies.

My friends were all from places that I imagined to be more . . . authentic. I listened to my friends' hometown stories with envy. In Marion, Virginia they had southern accents, bluegrass, and hometown doctors that cross-country skied to the office in the winter. I am sure there were grassroots revolutions started in the coffee shops and vegetarian joints in Amherst, Massachusetts. High school students in Seattle, Washington knew how to deal with both glacial crevasses and inner city scuffles. And in the tiny hamlet of Pultneyville, New York, old ladies will interrupt your long run to taste test their homemade cookies. I spent my summers in Alaska, Idaho, and Washington, hoping to gain some kind of character that I thought the Midwest had shorted me on. So, I was surprised and even delighted in China when a friend from California paused after something I said and exclaimed, "God you're so Midwest!"

That got me thinking. What exactly is that Midwest character? I thought there was none. But, the Beach Boys Sing about it: "The Midwest farmers' daughter's really make you feel alright..." So, there must be something distinct there right?

Here are some undeveloped thoughts:

Is it for better or worse, that the Midwest feels a bit generic?
In her song entitled Iowa, Dar Williams sings, "Way back where I come from, we never mean to bother; we don't like to make our passions other people's concerns. We walk in the world of safe people and at night we walk into our houses and burn."

Is it that people are friendly, or that they keep to themselves?
After a flight of unwelcome chatter on a plane, my sister-in-law's friend said that he appreciates Ohioans as seatmates because Ohioans will always say hello, but still let you read your book.

Or, is it some obsession with a constant hyper-awareness in social interactions. With tedious utterances of "Sorry" and "Thank you," a good Midwesterner is continuously aware of how to help others while simultaneously staying out of their business and never, ever, inconveniencing.
Author Jonathan Franzen captures this in The Corrections, as he describes his main character's visit to a museum in St. Jude. I did not bring the book to Beijing so I cannot quote it directly. He explains perfectly the constant awareness with which everyone moved about the exhibits. Each person will pretend to view the display even after they have lost interest, so as to not pressure those ahead of them. If those ahead of them are also good Midwesterners, they have a guilty fear about lingering too long which becomes activated by the tacit signals from the people behind them. The whole system works very well.

Or, does it have something to do with a balance of restraint and indulgence. My friend told me that is his father, a good Midwestern man, could never bring himself to give his cat straight kitty treats, but rather mixed them with the other less decadent cat food.

Here is call for your thoughts and suggestions from Literature/music/films/comedy and your own musings. I need some material. So please, give me Garrison Keillor and the lot. What's your Midwest description? You can email or comment.


  1. Grant,a Beijinger from Cincinnati suggested that you cannot talk about the Midwest without some mention of Euchre. Good call Grant!

  2. A high school friend of mine became a college English professor and a published poet. When asked about the "place" aspects of Midwest writers principally poets, he shared this:

    The issue of midwestern identity is more difficult now that it was fifteen years ago.
    My spouse and I are midwesterners of two different kinds (she's urban; I'm rural), but we no longer live in the
    midwest and must be considered San Franciscans even though our roots are very shallow here. The same
    is true of the poets who who replaced me at Columbia College Chicago; they come from other places
    than Chicago and the midwest and hold other regional values. David Trinidad is from L.A. and NYC.
    Arielle Greenberg and Lisa Fishman were raised, I believe, on the East Coast. Poets increasingly do not
    live and teach in the places where they were raised. This is due to the professionalization of poetry
    and the need to have the MFA and PhD degrees. When I was hired at Columbia College Chicago in the
    1970s, the talent pool could still be local; this is no longer true.

    In poetry, I would look to the books of James Wright and Robert Bly, particularly those of the 60s
    and 70s: Bly's "Silence in the Snowy Field" and "Wright's "Shall We Gather at the River," for instance.
    The Illinois poets John Knoepfle of Springfield, as well. Comparison/contrast of such poets with
    the now deceased Illinois poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks would be interesting. A lifelong Chicagoan,
    her midwest is of the city--see her early sequence "In the Mecca," for instance. The Mecca was
    a location on the city's South Side. All of the above are of a place but also transcend regional

    The poetry of the former U.S. poet laureate, Ted Kooser, is thought to be quintessentially midwestern,
    even though he lives in the plains state of Nebraska. As a poet of place, a comparison / contrast
    might be drawn with the poet Charles Olson, who wrote primarily of his place of Gloucester,
    Massachusetts, a commercial fishing town. Olson, however, was considered to be urbane, while Kooser
    is sometimes derided, unfairly or not, as a provincial poet of the farmlands. There's a lot of controversy
    and contradiction in these distinctions. Why were Robert Frost of New England, WC Williams of
    Paterson, NJ, and Robinson Jeffers of the California coast, all essentially regional in their sense of place,
    considered to be sophisticated and worldly?

    The poetry of Theodore Roethke would make an interesting study. His location was essentially his
    father's greenhouse in Michigan.

    In the modernist period, there arose the Chicago Renaissance featuring Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters,
    and Vachel Lindsay, all pretty much forgotten at this point in history (yes, even Sandburg). And there's
    the curiosity that Poetry, edited by Harriet Monroe in Chicago, became the leading magazine of modernism
    because Ezra Pound, then living in London, was its insistent foreign correspondent. Yet no one uses the
    expression "midwestern modernism." The midwest is seen as the place one is from, not a place of literary production.
    Robert Bly, who has lived his entire life in rural Minnesota, once told me that Chicago was considered a
    "fly-over city." It has long had one of the world's leading art museums, and it's famous for notable private
    art collections. It has one of the world's leading symphony orchestras, and its architecture is known
    throughout the world. But the mythology of the midwest as culturally lacking is very deeply rooted.

    The black poet and Vietnam War veteran, Cecil Giscombe, had an interesting project, in the early to mid-
    90s, of tracing his own heritage back to a small town in the wilds of Canada. A relative of his had
    settled the area now known as Giscombe. Cecil's book has the title (I believe) of Giscombe Road.
    A resident for many years of Normal, Illinois, he taught at Illinois State University before moving recently
    to Berkeley, CA, to teach at UC.

    I hope this is of some help.

    All the best, Paul

  3. I think that the midwestern culture is about maintaining separation. We separate the components of our lives more than other cultures and highlight the highpoints like there is no tomorrow. Here are some examples:

    We wear our normal clothes until they wear out for the sake of not spending on the latest fashion, but will always make sure that we have a nice set of our Sunday best.

    We keep our residential area and our commercial area separated by a distance that is too large to be walked comfortably.

    We like our food to maintain its separate locations on our plate, never to be combined and certainly not to be mixed with flavor. What we do not have in local cultural flavor from food, we make up for in volume.

    We leave extra car lengths in front of us during traffic and will blink our lights at an intersection to keep us from getting too close to one another. Yellow lights are difficult for us to comprehend because we prefer the clear distinction of separation of the other two.

    We like big wide aisles at Walmart and wide lanes on our roads. We like SUV's so that we do not actually have to touch one another and subdivisions that let us have a clibrated distance between houses.

    We park in the grass because it is too crowded in the garage.

    We can drink and party on Saturday night and make it to Sunday service the next morning.

    Our coffee is black, our bread is white.

    When we greet you, you can see our smile. When we leave you, you can see our gun rack in the cab of our pickup.

    Nothing makes us happier than the sound of crickets, and the sight of fireflies in an open field on a July night, separated from the rest of the world.

  4. Have you figured out the Midwest quality yet -Laura? I'd love to know. I spent so long spurning Midwest-ness. I'd really like to know what it is that I was spurning :).

  5. Not sure yet, but I am sure that "spurning" is the word I was missing! Nice...

  6. One thing about the Midwest is that, even in cities, you are aware of the importance of agriculture. High atop the Board of Trade building in the heart of Chicago's financial district is a statue of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. You see this connection to the land in Prairie School architecture, the way it hugs the land, even in crowded urban settings.