MARCH 18, 2018
JON K. LAUCK’S LATEST BOOK is a deeply researched analysis of how Midwestern literature — and by extension, the Midwest itself — has been written out of standard histories of American literary culture. Focusing on the 45 years when the canon of American literature and its hierarchies of aesthetic and social value were, if not invented, at the very least fully elaborated by critics, Lauck chronicles a concerted effort to diminish the contributions of the middle part of the country in the service of creating a cosmopolitan national literature. For Lauck, the Midwest is more than just an example of a region that produces a rooted, full sense of identity and belonging. It is no faded 19th-century New England that can be the wellspring of culture even though its economic power has faded. The Midwest, he insists, has been scapegoated despite the fact that it is “the lost region at the heart of our nation.”
The book tells a fairly straightforward story: literature written by and about the Midwest, Lauck argues, was systematically written out of canonical accounts of the emergence of a genuine, self-conscious modern literary tradition. And critics did more than forget the Midwest: they demonized it, creating it as the image of everything a vibrant literary tradition needed to overcome. The book’s aims are twofold: to trace how the Midwest fell off the literary map, and to argue that a renewed attention to a sense of place more generally is an important corrective to the rootless, urban, elite version of American literature that persists to this day.
The Midwest, Lauck argues, became the emblem of a narrow provincialism rather rapidly in 1921 when Carl Van Doren argued in The Nation that the most interesting modern literature about the middle of the country could be characterized as the “revolt from the village.” For Van Doren, the writers who critiqued local life as suffocating rather than fulfilling were those who were both political truth-tellers and aesthetic innovators. The “revolt from the village” was almost immediately picked up and repeated by the critics of the 1920s, whose devotion to an equally narrow definition of literary value spelled the doom of the Midwest, which went from “the warm center of communal life” to its hollow, bankrupt interior seemingly overnight. Over four substantial chapters and an epilogue, Lauck argues that the urban, Eastern critics substantially misread the work of even those writers who were assigned to the “revolt” school, and completely ignored those writers whose work pointedly declined to expose the grim contours of life in small towns. He persuasively argues that a cadre of Midwestern writers attempted to revolt against “revolt from the village” criticism, continuing to create widely circulated fiction that celebrated the values of small-town communities and deliberately turned away from the dominance of Eastern aesthetic judgments.
Lauck integrates the narrative of this attack on Midwestern literature with an account of the rise and eventual fall of a Midwestern school of history. Beginning with Frederick Jackson Turner and culminating in the establishment of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, the flourishing of place-based history at established Midwestern universities came to define a fair few land-grant universities’ history departments, including those at Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska. But spurred in part by the political crisis of the Cold War period, changes in the profession of history relegated Midwestern history to the same category of narrow provincialism that blighted Midwestern literature. The rise of American Studies, social history, and an increased attention to the histories of immigration, race, and gender by progressive historians quickly deflated the prestige of local history as it was practiced in such universities.
Lauck’s exacting and meticulous scholarship as he details the professionalization of literary taste alongside the discipline of history deserves praise. This book is not only a triumph of research — the endnotes are nearly as long as the text of the book itself — it is also an object lesson in how to incorporate the fine details of such research into a compelling narrative. But From Warm Center to Ragged Edge is not merely a tightly constructed chronicle of the contributions of scholars, writers, and historians from the Midwest. It’s a manifesto against the common view of the Midwest as “flyover country,” a place with no real culture of its own. We need, Lauck asserts, to return to the idea of place, to clear away the sedimented irony and suspicion that have solidified around words like “region,” “town,” and “community” (in its localized sense) so that we can see what’s good and valuable about regional cultures. Appreciation for the local, he declares in his epilogue, can invigorate democratic and civic culture by reminding us that we are members of collectives, and that such membership need not be accidentally demographic, a matter of where one ends up, but could and perhaps ought to be a matter of how one chooses to shape that collective. Fidelity to the local can also teach us to resist the blandishments of an anodyne, characterless mass culture: “Resisting charges of provincialism and respecting local and regional cultures involve developing some capacity for resistance to the flood of mass culture produced elsewhere,” he writes.
It’s a stirring idea, certainly, and it emerges again and again in the book. But it only really works if we have some consensus about what a place actually is, and only if we believe that a uniform mass culture will uniformly delude us all and prevent any of us from speaking back to it, or bending it to another purpose. To take one nagging example: it’s not clear exactly what the Midwest is, in Lauck’s view. His definition is a little elliptical: it’s not what people think it is. That is, it’s not filled with uncultured, right-wing populists who have a cramped and airless vision of what life should be; it’s not parochial and prejudiced. But even though Lauck argues against an Eastern elite idea of what constitutes the Midwest, the image that emerges by default is a utopian shadow version of that more familiar one. It’s a warm, coherent, small-town world where people have strong values and help their neighbors. It’s the storybook small-town version of the Midwest. It’s a 19th-century version of potlucks and dusty country roads. But why start there? Why isn’t the Midwest defined as the site of the violent expropriation of native people? What is the warrant for producing the “real” Midwest from an already fictional and whitewashed definition of it?
Arguably, what the Midwest “really” is might not matter if we read the book as an argument to embrace local and regional culture. Even then, of course, there are a number of problems when we try to isolate regional and cultural particularity. How do we define particularity? How does one feel Midwestern rather than say, Nebraskan? Or even northern Nebraskan? What is the utility of saying Midwest — or New England, or Pacific Coast — rather than some smaller, potentially more meaningful increment from which one draws one’s sense of community? How does one decide on membership in some notional community? Is the Midwest meaningful as a lived, abstract community given the numberless people who inhabited that land and space whose names, ethnicities, claims, and stories have been forgotten?
These are not easy questions to answer, and it matters how the Midwest is defined, and therefore whose Midwest is represented. In part, this is a disciplinary quandary: in some sense, the Midwest dismissed by Carl Van Doren and his coterie was a profoundly literary version, represented by writers whose fiction became the basis for a kind of unexamined social fact. But to attempt to revivify and resignify a “real” Midwest by reference to another set of texts about it leads to the same problem: there isn’t any recognition here of how complicated the sense of place can be for an inhabitant at any given moment, or how that sense of place can be in a conversation with its opposite at any moment.
In many ways, this is a prescient book: if there’s anything that the current political and social climate has taught people it’s that we can’t simply dismiss entire swaths of the country and by extension their populations. The recent spate of books about the damage that is sometimes entailed by the failure to understand the class, race, and gendered exclusions within regions — books in which we can count J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy — is evidence enough of that. Lauck argues in his epilogue that there are meaningful attempts to grapple with how racially, ethnically, and ecologically resonant a sense of place and a fantasy of belonging to it can be. Yet the regional sense of belonging Lauck advocates requires us to ask ourselves what exactly makes a region in the first place. If it is mere geographic belonging, we must be prepared to see regions as not only internally complex, rich with histories of exclusion and negotiation over membership, but we must also be prepared to see regions as something more than geographic. If we take seriously the different ways we can attach ourselves to a sense of community, especially in an age of social media, Lauck’s book is, perhaps against its will, an instructive way to get us to take seriously the debates about which cultures are valued and which are not.