The Neo-Regionalist Moment: Hearing the Emerging Voices of the American Center




INTELLECTUAL MOVEMENTS advance on multiple levels — through academic and popular books and journals, via mass and social media, and in the populist grassroots imagination. At present, the world of Midwestern studies is advancing on all these fronts, although at different speeds.

On the level of popular but serious books, the forerunner is J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016), much of which transpires in southern Ohio, though the story is mostly concerned with the culture of Appalachia. A few years on, Vance has been overtaken by writers of greater intricacy who are specifically focused on the Midwest. The literary world also needs to move on. While entertaining pitches from agents about “the next Hillbilly Elegy,” publishers searched for something new, something less conservative, something more nuanced. The results include three new books about the Midwest by three young authors (two first-timers), all released by major publishers, and each garnering a New York Times review. Collectively, they signal a new moment, a time of rejuvenation for a neglected American region, a springtime for the Midwest.

The most magnetic of these authors — and surely a voice to be reckoned with for many decades to come — is Meghan O’Gieblyn. After growing up in Michigan, O’Gieblyn went to college in Chicago and then landed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she earned an MFA. While a student there, she penned most of the essays woven into Interior States. All of O’Gieblyn’s work is deeply pondered and researched, infused with a Midwestern pragmatism, and elevated by the author’s innate curiosity and intellectual acuity. Her prevailing method is logic, not passion; her style is persuasion, not badgering.

O’Gieblyn’s father sold industrial lubricant, so her family moved around the Midwest “to the kinds of cities that had been built for manufacturing.” In short, she knows the territory well. She is bonded to Lake Michigan, especially the beautiful shores around Muskegon, and can nimbly read the scenes of Chicago’s south side, its traces of industrialism and its bawdy bars. She recalls visits to Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, a monument to the remembrance of things past, especially the Midwest’s old agrarian order. She drives down to the large Creation Museum in Indiana, in the midst of her own confusion over her diminishing Christian faith. The fading industrial remnants of Southern Chicago and Northern Indiana, and the ebbing of the old Christian order in the Midwest, conjure a “profound loss of telos, the realization that the industries and systems that built the region are no longer tenable.” If the old core of the Midwest has lost its vibrancy, its “bucolic peripheries” persist, undergirding the “autumnal sentimentalism” of the “Pure Michigan” campaign, but also the calming, woodsy, cabin culture that draws so many to the northern half of the Midwest.

As an emerging writer and intellectual, O’Gieblyn expected to leave the Midwest, to join the preponderant pattern of out-migration, to follow the interstates, the “sound of transit, or things passing through.” Instead, she stayed in her home region, becoming part of its stable rhythms while still feeling an “existential dizziness, a sense that the rest of the world is moving while you remain still.” As an intellectual, an analyst, a quiet observer with a monkish reserve, O’Gieblyn appreciates the Midwest’s “stoicism, a resistance to excitement that is native to this region” and its habit of “tuning out the fashions and revelations of the coastal cities, which have nothing to do with you.”

The trendy bakeries and co-ops and fair trade coffees and Orange You Glad It’s Vegan? cakes of Madison and the drone of NPR do not impress O’Gieblyn. She thinks Madisonians have “suffered from the fundamental delusion that we had elevated ourselves above the rubble of hinterland ignorance.” O’Gieblyn’s métier throughout her essays is intelligence and nuance and gratitude. The highlight of the book might be the chapters “On Subtlety,” which was first published last year in Tin House, and “American Niceness,” which ran in The New Yorker in 2017. Wisconsin, she says, “is a place where niceness is so ubiquitous that it seems practically constitutional”; in her work, and in her travels and speeches, she shows no sign of breaching these constitutional norms.

O’Gieblyn’s particular concern is faith, her internal beliefs, her journey within the Midwest toward a new state of mind — thus, the dual meaning of the smartly titled Interior States. O’Gieblyn grew up in a family that attended a shrinking Baptist church in southeast Michigan. She was homeschooled until the 10th grade and then attended Moody’s Bible Institute in Chicago. She left Moody’s after her sophomore year, and her dwindling faith and search for a new purpose form large chunks of the book. She dials up the pills and drinking and hard-living for a while, to contend with the “overwhelming despair at the absence of God.” But she also reads and thinks and begins to write, launching what we can confidently predict will be a triumphant career.

O’Gieblyn’s voice is consistently generous and inquiring. She still finds Christianity beautiful, though unconvincing, certainly not worthy of scorn. She takes a telescopic view, always considering ancestry and posterity and the world ahead — surely a flickering vestige of her biblical training — and rightly remains annoyed with electronic devices and the digital world’s “hypnotic […] assurance that nothing lies beyond the day’s serving of novel minutiae.” Instead of a fashionably snarky dismissal of John Updike, she attempts to understand his moment and his appeal, a rare maneuver indeed.

Soon after the appearance of O’Gieblyn’s Interior States came Sarah Smarsh’s memoir Heartland, an account of her life growing up in Kansas. The book has been reviewed in all the right places, and Smarsh has talked to all the key gatekeepers, large and small, orchestrating the literary equivalent of the “full Ginsburg.” She even became the master of ceremonies at the Topeka inauguration of the new Kansas governor, Laura Kelly, who last fall defeated Trump’s choice, Kris Kobach, a result widely cheered by The Resistance. 

Smarsh’s coming-of-age experiences are not easy to summarize. Her grandmother, Betty, and her mother, Jeannie, grew up primarily in Wichita and other nearby places; both were teenage mothers. Due to fizzled marriages, protracted poverty, and various failed ventures, Jeannie had moved 48 times by the time she started high school. Smarsh’s greatest source of love and stability did not come from the maternal side of her family, urban-oriented and transitory as it was, but from Smarsh’s father, a genuinely kind and decent man who was descended from a long line of Kansas wheat farmers. Smarsh’s step-grandfather, Arnie, who married Betty (her seventh marriage), operated a small wheat farm west of Wichita, which provided a refuge for Smarsh, with a piano and a pool and a rural room to breathe when she needed to live away from her mother. Grandma Betty “found her happiest home in the country,” as did Smarsh. Smarsh’s encomium to rural life is reminiscent of Debra Marquart’s ruminations on the northern plains in The Horizontal World (2006).

In a sad breach of the Midwestern code described by O’Gieblyn, Smarsh’s mother was not nice to her daughter. As a result, Smarsh was left “emotionally impoverished,” a sharper source of agony, she implies, than her family’s financial constraints. Her frustrations with her mother are laced throughout the book, her swelling disgust palpable. When her mother leaves her father, Smarsh gives no explanation. When her mother leaves her new and likable and stable newspaper-columnist husband with the nice house, who subscribes to The New Yorker and reads art books and collects Beat poetry and watches Woody Allen movies and listens to NPR, Smarsh gives no explanation. Maybe none was given to her at the time. But Smarsh’s abrupt announcements of these splits leave the clear impression that she disapproved, that these decisions only brought more instability and financial pain. She hints that her mother was partying too much, stepping out, enjoying a nightlife she was deprived of as a young mother, but few details are provided. One feels Smarsh inching toward a full ventilation of her feelings but pulling back, seeking to protect her mother, not wanting to reignite simmering animosities.

By contrast, her treatment of Betty, her heroic grandmother, steals the show. After settling into her seventh marriage, on the wheat farm with Arnie, Betty finds some normalcy and success. She begins work at the Sedgwick County (Wichita) courthouse, working her way up to subpoena officer and even joining the Wichita Police Reserve. Smarsh bonds with Betty, along with an African-American county judge dubbed “Hang ’em High Watson,” over case files; she admires the young female district attorney, and contemplates the miseries of the parolees and prisoners. Betty brings a salty cynicism to the parade of excuses she hears from her wards about spotty childhoods: “Don’t give me that dysfunctional childhood bullshit. My family invented dysfunction.”

The difficulty of overcoming this dysfunction is the burden of Smarsh’s book. She carries it well, with a few qualifications. One can simultaneously offer a hard-boiled look at the complexity and hardship of prairie poverty while also rejecting the increasingly frequent and grand but tiresome pronouncement that the American-Dream-is-Dead, another form of beating the anti–Hillbilly Elegy dead horse. The Washington Post review insisted that Heartland is a “rebuke” to the “myth” that “clean living” can promote social advancement. But, in fact, Smarsh tends to show the opposite — that the DWIs, fights, drugs, drinking, excessive gambling, broken marriages, shoplifting, random shootings, car wrecks, teenage mothers, et cetera, do indeed tend to set back the Kansans she describes.

Smarsh eschews a simple morality tale. She wants her readers to understand the various forms and levels and intricacies and traps of poverty, first and foremost, but she does not blush at highlighting self-imposed stumbles. Smarsh lends credence to the advice dispensed to young Kansans, which has hardened into a foundational piece of conventional wisdom common to the center of the country: “Don’t act like a knothead or you’ll end up in jail.” In the end, Smarsh offers a qualified version of the American Dream: “You got what you worked for, we believed. There was some truth to that. But it was not the whole truth.”

To understand the first part of that truth, it is essential to pause and admire Smarsh’s resilience and fortitude. She vowed to work hard and overcome her circumstances. In the aspect of her book most widely panned by critics, Smarsh explains to her never-born child why she tried so hard to avoid teenage pregnancy. A snide New York Times reviewer mocked how Smarsh’s “unborn child pops into the prose like Ally McBeal’s Baby Cha-Cha.” But I found this device to be touching and real and, as Smarsh says, vital to her achievements: “[Y]ou kept me away from poison and danger.” She got into gifted programs, published a story in a national children’s magazine, won public speaking contests, was a homecoming queen candidate; she made it to the University of Kansas for her undergraduate degree and to Columbia University for a graduate degree, and recently she finished a stint at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. She barely missed winning the National Book Award. There were no bullshit dysfunction excuses from Smarsh, as grandma Betty would say.

In the end, despite the lure of its simplicity and the tug of its narrative cohesion, Smarsh’s Heartland doesn’t really fit into our conventional political boxes. She examines poverty unflinchingly, but she also shows how the “cycle had been broken” with her success. She suggests ways to make poverty less difficult, but she is neither grandiose nor annoyingly didactic. In other words, Smarsh is real — Kansas hardscrabble, no-bullshit real. Smarsh’s realism taps into an older and once-prominent literary tradition from the Midwest, the region that broke the Northeast’s domination of the proper 19th-century Victorian drawing room. She’s in the line of Midwestern realists that includes Hamlin Garland and Theodore Dreiser.

Smarsh’s realism is closely connected to place. She writes powerfully of thunderstorms and prairie winds and the tornadoes that made Kansas famous. When Kansas-born Betty visited Chicago, she was not impressed with “The Windy City”: “Shit. They never seen wind.” To better understand the appeal of agrarianism and the traditions of small farms, Smarsh reads Wendell Berry. She sees how critical rural Kansas was to her plan to succeed: “[M]ost essential to my well-being was the unobstructed freedom of a flat, wide horizon.” As someone who understands and defends Kansas as a place, she grows weary of her home being “spurned by more powerful corners of the country as a monolithic cultural wasteland,” a “flyover country” populated by “backward” “rednecks” and “white trash.” The wider nation, she comes to see, viewed places like Kansas as “unimportant, liminal places. They yawned while driving through them, slept as they flew over them.” Smarsh calls for a new way of thinking about diversity, one that also stresses class and neglected regions of the country. She seeks to counter a form of inequality seldom commented on but frequently hinted at — the regional inequality that leaves New York and California the dominant forces in our culture.

If O’Gieblyn is the cerebral analyst and Smarsh the plucky climber of this trio, then Stephen Markley is the guy in the fluorescent green vest running the jackhammer on the streets of Akron while imagining happy hour. Like O’Gieblyn and Smarsh, Markley is young and Midwestern and on the brink of a major literary career. Growing up in Mount Vernon, Ohio, about an hour north of Columbus in the center of the state, he played basketball and partied a bit but maintained his grades. His social life was bonfires, dances, and football games. His parents are professors — his mother, Laurie Finke, is Kenyon College’s first tenure-track director of women’s and gender studies, and his father, Robert Markley, is a prominent professor of English at the University of Illinois. Markley majored in creative writing and history at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and then freelanced in Chicago for six years while writing two nonfiction books. For three years, he lived in Iowa City, where he earned a degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and began work on his novel, Ohio. (MGM recently bought the rights, and it will be made into a television series.) He’s now in Los Angeles writing a new book and working as a screenwriter. An ex-girlfriend has described Markley “as a Midwestern bro who happened to make it.”

Markley sees Ohio as a hopeful novel, rejecting some critics’ charges of nihilism, and he is not wrong. But it takes some readerly endurance to reach that conclusion. Ohio is the story of one day in the town of New Canaan, Ohio (population 15,000, located halfway between Columbus and Cleveland). It focuses on The Big Chill–ish re-convergence of several young lives a decade after they all graduated from high school. Some of their comrades were slain by drugs, some by war; the survivors struggle with their identities, one becoming consumed with the clichés of left-wing politics. The backdrop is the death of Rick Brinklan, whose parents were “prototypical kind, plainspoken midwesterners.” Rick was an earnest and patriotic running back at New Canaan High School, with an “electric core of decency,” who bravely defended the honor of victimized classmates, while his friend the social justice warrior (Zuccotti Park, Mexican collective farms, Cambodian NGOs) wilted under the pressure. Rick went off to Ohio State to become a math teacher and coach, but dropped out to join the Marines after 9/11, ending up dead in Iraq.

Ohio is brilliantly structured and a challenge to set aside. While executed well, the numerous flashbacks and the complex connections among the characters require close attention; the reader is advised to make a small chart inside the book’s front cover for easy reference. Markley’s descriptive powers and characterization skills shine throughout. A school is an “institutional slab of crap architecture with that sixties-era authoritarian aura to its brick Lego look.” A bar is “one of those sad dips in the dunes of the rural-industrial Midwest.” A grocery store is the “epicenter of New Canaan stop-and-chat time sucks.” As for Rick, he was the

kind of guy you’d find teeming across the country’s swollen midsection: toggling Budweiser, Camels, and dip, leaning into the bar like he was peering over the edge of a chasm, capable of near philosophy when discussing college football or shotgun gauges, neck on a swivel for any pretty lady but always loyal to his true love, most of his drinking done within a mile or two of where he was born.

Markley’s most salient descriptions are reserved for Ohio itself. Characters cross the Ohio River into the state or cross the hills around the Mahoning Valley, where the “oblate plain of Northeast Ohio came into repose.” They pass through the “flat expanse of cornfields, barns, and country homes that peppered the drive south to Ohio’s capital,” always watching closely for deer. They get sunburned up on Lake Erie and visit Cedar Point and take boats out to South Bass Island. The kids go to the country to drink: “Shit, if you can’t drive these country roads loaded on cheap whiskey what’s the point of being from Ohio?” Characters bounce between Dayton, Toledo, Mansfield, Youngstown, Akron, Marysville, Dover, Worthington, Springfield, Cincinnati, Canton, Cedar Point, Van Wert, and Lima. They take in the rural and forgotten places that Markley calls “Deep Ohio.”

The students of New Canaan learned the details of Ohio history in seventh grade from the devoted Mrs. Bingham, who was a teacher for 50 years and had thick “Buckeye blood.” Bingham taught Ohio history by way of stories of savage frontier warfare, of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, Little Turtle, the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the Gnadenhutten massacre, and Marcus Spiegel (a German Jew who immigrated to Ohio and led the 120th Ohio Volunteer Infantry as it sliced through Mississippi and Louisiana and learned, as he said, the “horrors of slavery”). All this expertise on Midwestern history brings to mind the work of Andrew Cayton of Miami University — and, sure enough, when an Ohio character visits his former high school teacher in the nursing home, he tells her: “I’ve actually been rereading some Ohio stuff. Andrew Cayton and this historian Rob Harper.” [1] The intense focus on early Ohio recalls a comment by the novelist Dawn Powell of Mount Gilead, Ohio (30 miles from Markley’s Mount Vernon) — which, oddly enough, serves as an epigraph for O’Gieblyn’s book: “All Americans come from Ohio originally, if only briefly.”

Markley chronicles the ravages of deindustrialization — New Canaan is hurt by the loss of a steel-tube plant and two plate-glass manufacturers — and recounts the ravages of opioids and other drugs, as well as episodes of sexual abuse. Channeling the themes of the century-old “revolt from the village” genre, [2] he at times sees the town as the “poster child of middle-American angst,” finds the “raw wrath roosting in the small towns, suburbs, and exurbs of Middle America,” and detects an abiding “alienation.” And yet the town has fierce defenders — like Rick, of course, and also Dan Eaton, another New Canaanite who joined the military. Eaton tacks an Abraham Lincoln quote to his corkboard: “I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.” After a chat with her high school teacher, one young woman “marveled at how many extremely decent people she’d known in this place. How much she’d taken them for granted.”

The book bounces between love and contempt for small-town Ohio in a manner that makes broad conclusions impossible. Momentary truths are found in the stories of individuals who struggle to stabilize their lives after going through a rough patch, an experience that is hard for them to articulate to others. In this regard, Markley resembles Sherwood Anderson, who found his muse close to Markley’s Mount Vernon in Elyria, and whose varied characters in Winesburg, Ohio (1919) contend with forces similar to those in Ohio: secrets, rumors, poverty, muted emotions.

These three new books display both odd convergences and intra-regional variations. A character’s religious de-conversion in Ohio recalls much of O’Gieblyn’s story in Interior States, and Smarsh says too that she has abandoned the pro-life Catholicism of her youth. The poverty discussed in Smarsh’s Heartland recalls the struggles of one of Markley’s young adults, working at the Walmart in Van Wert over by the Ohio-Indiana line. The drugs that trip up Smarsh’s relatives at times kill Markley’s characters.

These similar themes play out over variable Midwestern terrain. Smarsh’s flat Kansas of tornadoes and dust is distinct from Markley’s hilly and green Ohio. Smarsh’s Wichita feels, at times, like a Midwestern borderland, one that bumps into the South and witnesses some cultural cross-pollination. [3] Smarsh does not comment on Wichita’s proximity to the southern pale, but Markley is adept at distinguishing Ohio from what comes farther South. In his military scenes, he describes chip-on-the-shoulder Kentuckians who view Ohioans as “effete snobs sticking their noses up at the real salt-of-the-earth south of the river.” For their part, Ohioans mock Kentuckians for calling their towns “hollers” and make Kentucky jokes: “You know why they can’t teach driver’s ed and sex ed on the same day in Kentucky? ’Cuz that poor fucking horse gets too tired.”

This variation and texture highlights an intra-regional diversity across the Midwest, a complexity that is captured not only by O’Gieblyn, Smarsh, and Markley, but also by many other novels of the current wave. These include Peter Geye’s Wintering (2016), Keith Lesmeister’s We Could’ve Been Happy Here (2017), Nickolas Butler’s The Hearts of Men (2017), Melissa Frateriggo’s Glory Days (2017), Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere (2017), Sarah Stonich’s Laurentian Divide (2018), Steve Wingate’s Of Fathers and Fire (2019), and J. Ryan Stradal’s greatly anticipated follow-up to his Kitchens of the Great Midwest (2015), The Lager Queen of Minnesota (2019).

Similarly, in nonfiction, the wave includes Ted Genoways’s This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm (2017), Matthew Desmond’s Evicted (2017), Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story (2018), Eve Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side (2018), Andy Oler’s Old-Fashioned Modernism: Rural Masculinity and Midwestern Literature (2019), Jim Reese’s Bone Chalk (2019), and Carson Vaughan’s Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream (2019). It also includes the wonderful work of Belt Publishing (as in Rust Belt), which, for the past few years, has released such titles as Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern (2016) and the anthologies Grand Rapids Grassroots (2017) and The Milwaukee Anthology (2019). And it includes recently launched journals such as Middle West Review, Studies in Midwestern History, Midwest Gothic, and The New Territory, along with the creation of the Midwestern History Association, which hosts an annual conference in Michigan in conjunction with the Hauenstein Center in Grand Rapids. [4]

The Midwestern studies wave, in other words, is building. O’Gieblyn, Smarsh, and Markley are riding it. The region, after a half-century of neglect, is having its moment. Even the coasts are starting to notice.

To have more than a moment, however, the Midwest must build some enduring institutions. It cannot depend on the periodic notice of The New York Times, an unreliable arrangement at best and a position of colonial domination at worst. The dependence on the Times and the concentrated power of Manhattan’s literary scene leave interior writers forced to produce work “warped to the market” (as Hamlin Garland once said during an earlier era of burgeoning regionalist energies) — a distant market with distinct interests, which is driven by the logic of commodification and the demand for the edgy and the novel. The Midwest must also overcome a history of failed regionalist ventures, such as Midwest Review, Mid-America, Upper Midwest History, Flyover Country Review, and The Midwesterner.

In sum, the Midwest needs a sustained cultural presence so that its cultural production does not have to be consistently revived. The Midwestern literary scholar Sara Kosiba has noted John Updike’s shrewd comment on the literary output of Ohioan Dawn Powell, which he saw as “doomed to a perpetual state of revival.” [5] The Midwest needs an archipelago of university-based regional studies institutes, such as those that the South and the West enjoy. It needs a permanent presence on Big Ten campuses in the form of Midwestern studies classes. It needs to become a strong cultural force independent of the coastal gaze. This would be a revolutionary regionalist revival, one with permanence, not a fleeting spasm from the American center destined to repeat itself in another two decades.

¤

An adjunct professor of history at the University of South Dakota, Jon K. Lauck is the author of From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920-1965(University of Iowa Press, 2017).

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[1] On the early passing of Cayton and the significance of his career in Midwestern history, see Jon K. Lauck, “Remembrance: Andrew R. L. Cayton: Midwesterner, 1954-2015,” Middle West Review vol. 2, no. 2 (Spring 2016), 201–205. Harper is a graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio and earned his PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He now teaches at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and is the author of Unsettling the West: Violence and State Building in the Ohio Valley (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

[2] Jon K. Lauck, “The Myth of the Midwestern ‘Revolt from the Village,’” MidAmerica vol. 40 (2013), 39–85.

[3] See Jay Price, “Where the Midwest Meets the Bible Belt: Using Religion to Explore the Midwest’s Southwestern Edge,” in Jon K. Lauck, (ed), The Interior Borderlands: Regional Identity in the Midwest and Great Plains (Sioux Falls: Center for Western Studies, 2019), 229-42 and Price, “Dixie’s Disciples: The Southern Diaspora and Religion in Wichita, Kansas,” Kansas History vol. 40 (Winter 2017-18), 244–261.

[4] See Jon K. Lauck, “The Origins and Progress of the Midwestern History Association, 2013-2016,” Studies in Midwestern History vol. 2, no. 11 (2016), 139–149.

[5] Sara Kosiba (ed), A Scattering Time: How Modernism Met Midwestern Culture (Hastings, NE: Hastings College Press, 2018), ix.


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