The Elusive Midwestern Identity

Grant_Wood_-_American_Gothic_-_Google_Art_ProjectThis past May I traveled to a Pastor’s Conference at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, as part of my sabbatical. While there, I had numerous opportunities to answer the question, “Where are you from?” Since most of the attendees were from western Canada or the Pacific Northwest, it was always entertaining to explain where Milwaukee is (‘just north of Chicago’) or what it means to be from the Midwestern region of America. What is the Midwest, anyway, and is it really unique to be from there?

That topic is exactly what Phil Christman explores in his article, “On Being Midwestern: The Burden of Normality,” in the latest edition of The Hedgehog Review.

After my Texas-born wife and I moved to Michigan—an eleven-hour drive in the snow, during which time itself seemed to widen and flatten with the terrain—I found myself pressed into service as an expert on the region where I was born and where I have spent most of my life. “What is the Midwest like?” she asked. “Midwestern history, Midwestern customs, Midwestern cuisine?” I struggled to answer with anything more than clichés: bad weather, hard work, humble people. I knew these were inadequate.

As a lifelong Midwesterner I thoroughly enjoyed Christman’s exploration of the stereotypes, artistic representations, self-deprecating humor, and perceptions of the Midwest. Referencing Fargo, Abraham Lincoln, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and social commentary over the past one-hundred years, Christman addresses the burdens of life in the Midwest. What burdens, you may ask?

What does it do to people to see themselves as normal? On the one hand, one might adopt a posture of vigilant defense, both internal and external, against anything that might detract from such a fully, finally achieved humanness. On the other hand, a person might feel intense alienation and disgust, which one might project inward—What is wrong with me?—or outward, in a kind of bomb-the-suburbs reflex. A third possibility—a simple, contented being normal—arises often in our culture’s fictions about the Midwest, both the stupid versions (the contented families of old sitcoms) and the more sophisticated ones (Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, that living argument for the value of banal goodness). I have yet to meet any real people who manage it. A species is a bounded set of variations on a template, not an achieved state of being.

Give it a read here.

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