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Midwest Lit: What Is The Midwest Anyway?

Pondering The Trouble With Defining Midwest As A Region


You have your Southern Gothics, your Westerns, your New York down-and-outers, dreamers, and hustlers — but what’s the shorthand for the literary style of the Midwest?

Some of the most celebrated contemporary and classic American writers have roots here, from Ernest Hemingway, Edna Ferber and Saul Bellow to Jonathan Franzen, Marilynne Robinson and Jane Hamilton. Kurt Vonnegut claimed in a 1986 speech: “All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.”

And yet, who thinks of Indianapolis first when thinking of Vonnegut? (Sorry to say, Indy.)

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Part of the reason we may struggle to define the literary Midwest is the vastness and variety of the place itself. The industrial remains of Detroit and Cleveland seem far removed from the farm fields of Iowa and the lake towns of northern Minnesota. Who are we? And maybe even more fundamentally, where are we?

We’re not the only ones asking.

Are We ‘North?’

As John Toren writes in this MinnPost article, Minnesotans are pondering the idea of becoming “North,” a region marked by innovation, a sturdy character and of course, long, cold winters. Supporters believe that the Midwest is too big and poorly defined to adequately represent what makes the region special. Is North a new “cool image” that will change perceptions of the Midwest?

Or Are We ‘Rusty?’

In recent years, postindustrial cities like Cleveland and Detroit have attracted renewed attention and creative energy.

But that energy never seems to make it onto the page, according to some. Many novels read like love letters to a city. Teju Cole’s New York City in “Open City”; Zadie Smith’s London.

But what of the Midwest? As Mark Athitakis proclaims in a Belt Magazine article, “The Midwestern novel today is a nostalgic thing, engineered to remember the heartland either as a place of comfort or a place too comfortable with its retrograde values.”

Do WE Even Know Where We Are?

As this collection of maps posted on Vox helps illustrate, no one (not even Midwesterners) quite agrees on the boundaries of our region. The Dakotas? Kansas?

Some other articles to check out on the topic: The Guardian takes a stab at the literary culture of Chicago, and an ex-pat Chicagoan picks his top books about the city for a British reader. Agree? What’s missing?

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