How Midwestern Are You?

As Phil Christman’s Midwest Futures makes clear, “the Midwest” is a dwelling with many rooms. So here’s mine: a stretch of U.S. Highway 12 between 95th Street in Chicago and the St. Croix River bridge between Wisconsin and Minnesota. For all but two of my first forty years I lived no more than ten miles from this road, whether I was in a bedroom community on the river, a college town nestled among lakes, the varied neighborhoods of a big city or its leafy suburbs. My father grew up on a dairy farm, as did his father, as did his father, after his family moved from Denmark to Polk County, Wisconsin. Great-grandpa sold woolen goods off a wagon and worked in the lumber camps way up north, where his early exposure to French coworkers gave him some antibodies to the appeals of the Klan in the 20s. He voted for Debs on the theory that it was better to vote for a man in jail who deserved to be free than a free man who deserved to be in jail. He went into state politics as a Robert LaFollette-aligned Progressive Republican. Twenty years later, Grandpa returned to the legislature as a post-New Deal Democrat. My mother’s people, on the other side of the state, were mostly not landowners and entirety German and Catholic. Grandpa fought in the war and came home to do this and that; Grandma worked in factories that were probably not very safe. Great-grandpa was a night-watchman who loved the Church. My mom and her older sister killed, scalded, and plucked the lots of exhausted and eggbound hens Great-grandma purchased in their basement (“Live in hope, die in despair,” was one of her mottos). One summer, at fifteen, my mother went down to the Chicago suburbs to help take care of three young children whose parents promptly fled the home and left her in sole charge of the children. Three of my ancestors, at least, fought for the Union, though none of them, as far as I know, in the Iron Brigade, whose great name graces the stretch of Highway 12 that was two hundred yards from my door before I moved to Texas.

If you’re an American, the story of the Midwest (whatever and wherever it may in fact be) is about you, whether or not you’ve ever lived there or have roots there. The same can be said of California, the interior South, New York City, and many other places, to be sure–places whose economic, cultural, and political influence shape all of us whether we will it or not. In this brief book, Christman manages to touch on all these channels of influence and the self-effacing, self-aggrandizing, self-accusing and self-exculpating habits and myths that have grown up around them. It is a mottled and agonizing history, filled with paths not taken–this is a book about Native resistance, Populist, Progressive, and labor organizing, and Great Migration culture as much as it is about farming, conformity, and implicit whiteness–and resources still being contested. Christman’s recurring image is of the region as a “fund”: its land, people, resources, and eventually cultural institutions laid open to neighborly and generous cultivation or ruthless extraction. The children of the Midwest are always staked on the horns of this dilemma:

And this is the unbearable truth of the Midwest, of America. The picture-postcard city where neighbors pitch in during a storm and the sundown town are the same place. The Minneapolis that welcomes immigrants and the Minneapolis that allows its police to beat the poor are the same place. The Michigan that helped beat the Confederacy and the Michigan where white people lock their doors while drifting through Saginaw are the same place. One does not disprove the other. One is not the underbelly of the other. One will not finally triumph over the other. We have to reckon with both simultaneously; or we must admit to being both simultaneously.

page 91

There’s much more that I could quote from this book, but that’s a passage that particularly landed for me. My hometown was on a river that once connected those lumber-rich Northwoods with the Mississippi, and that kept the margin of romance that any river town will have. Then, now, and future; up and down; the hither and the yonder shore all meeting as you look out on the marina and the sandbar they called Beer Can Island. It was, in fact, a sundown town, though there was nothing so crude as a sign telling black people not to let the sun set on them here. But for all that commerce and connection, and for that proximity to Minneapolis and St. Paul (Hubert Humphrey: Harvey why did I lose Polk County to Kennedy? Grandpa: The men never forgave you for closing down the cathouses in Minneapolis), it was subtly and effectively kept nearly all-white until after we moved away. It was easy to think of this as an accident of circumstance or a defect of local diversity rather than as a policy, which, though informal, it was. (I pointed out a carry-out bag made by the company from my hometown, whose late owner was known to be the major force behind keeping black people from buying homes in town). When we left it was for Madison, a cosmopolitan city centered on the University and state government. Suddenly I knew kids whose parents came from China or Eritrea or Iran or England. While I was at first touchy on the matter of provincialism, I came to identify with my new home over against the old as an oasis of enlightenment and reason.

It took time to understand that a liberal Midwestern city like Madison has its own scalding injustices and inequalities, all the more invisible for the city’s self-regard. And it took time to understand that these are all parts of one whole. The state made the university, and the university brought the world to the state. The city was open to migration but not to integration; it kept all the old farm-town rituals of minimization and self-effacement but put them in a new political and cultural key. I could hear something of myself in the natives who eventually left (Saul Bellow) or the outsiders who arrived (whether Muddy Waters or Marilynne Robinson). And now that it is long since any of these places have been anyone’s frontier, there is no thought of fleeing for something purer. You carry home with you wherever you go, like the chemicals in the local plant that are part of your body forever:

Every human is so many other humans–and you feel that in the Midwest, wandering through those squares, among those people who, on paper, could have been you…. This feeling, like our history, points more than one way. It can make you ingrown like a toenail–why can’t I get the break I’m supposed to? But it can also cause you to think of those other selves: that poorer self, that queerer self, that darker self, that privileged self, that self who is kind of racist and watches too much TV but who has lost his mobility working at the refinery and whose body is full of flame retardant, that self who is a wheelchair-bound black lesbian [of anti-affirmative action rumors], also full of flame retardant. It can tell you that you must ry to care for all those selves as though they were you–as though you were made from the same soil and headed back to it.

p. 137

It was not until I experienced the luxurious squalor of New Orleans that I really felt like a Midwesterner in a cultural sense (can you credit a resident of Madison, Wisconsin being scandalized by evidence of racial inequality somewhere else?). And it wasn’t until I rode a bus through Nevada, on my way to a college in eastern California, that I knew how the landscape of the Midwest had formed me. Every now and then I would have those realizations on a smaller scale, as I would feel a sharp push off a subway in New York or hear a Texan who was ABD in comparative literature say that he was one of the biggest deals in Cervantes scholarship around. I live in Texas now and these realizations happen more often and will gradually die away. Lifetimes don’t come long enough to ever make me anything but a Midwesterner. But if the contrasts and contradictions of my home have impressed anything on me, it is the urgent need of seeing, hearing, and knowing that other who is always closer than we imagined.

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