Recentering Midwestern Literature and History

Last Updated by Katy Beem on
Sioux Falls historian Jon K. Lauck.

Sioux Falls-based historian Jon K. Lauck's new book From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism 1920-1965 (University of Iowa Press, 2017) tracks the fall of Midwestern literature and history from its critical heyday to its disavowal by coastal centers of power. The title refers to Nick Carroway's phrase in The Great Gatsby: "Instead of being the warm center of the world, the Middle West now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe . . . ."

Katy Beem: "What is a thumbnail definition of 'Midwestern regionalism' and is the term pejorative, positive, or neutral?"

Jon K. Lauck:  "I think it’s kind of a neutral term. It just refers to a form of writing or scholarship that focuses on a particular region.So, certain writers are considered regional writers or have a strong regional background. Like Willa Cather -- of course, she did many things besides her plains and Midwestern writings, but she is considered, partially considered regionalized for those sorts of writings. I think there could be some high-falutin literary critics who would see regionalism as a derogatory term, but I don’t think most people do and that’s certainly not how I meant it. This book is just referring to an era where there was a lot more writing about regions, particularly the Midwest."

KB: "Chapter One discusses the myth of the Midwestern 'revolt from the village.' To what does this revolt refer and why do you deem it a myth?"

JKL: "There was a construction advanced in the 1920s by a writer for The Nation, given the title 'The Revolt From the Village' and this referred to a group of works that he thought showed that Midwestern writers were attacking or rebelling against or being critical of their region. He’s referring to people like Sinclair Lewis in Main Street and Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio, Edgar Lee Masters in Spoon River Anthology, etc. So, this little construction of the revolt from the village has kind of passed into literary history and to historical outlines and, you know, this idea is referred to often. And I taught it that way when I was -- well, three or four years ago before I dug into this, I used to teach this like 10-minute aside in a history survey course, this was the revolt from the village. All these writers turned against the Midwest. Well, I finally started digging into this in a lot more detail and turns out, this thing is completely misleading. All three of those writers vehemently denied attacking the Midwest. They said the revolt from the village is completele bologna. And if you look at the books they wrote and the essays they wrote outside of the books just cited in this Nation article, they said a lot of positive things about the region. So, at the worst, they were highly ambiguous. I think in many ways they were quite favorable toward the region. So, that’s why I call it a myth. This revolt of from the village idea really needs to be dispensed and not used anymore because it’s so inaccurate."

KB: "So it was more the interpretation of their work and that interpretation, you’re saying, was on the part of someone on the coast and from The Nation.

JKL: "Yes -- a 1921 article in The Nation by Carl Van Doren."

KB: "As for the myth of the revolt from the village, I feel like I see echoes of this today that get perpetuated on social media, particularly when people who were born and raised in South Dakota have moved to a different state they regard as more politically liberal or culturally diverse. In this case, I’m looking at you, Minnesota! (laughs). They write opinion pieces in South Dakota newspapers in response to legislation that is often construed as 'backwater' -- bills about transgender bathrooms, for example. These pieces often end with 'and that is why I moved away and can’t live there now.' And these pieces get a lot of attention and generate a lot of discussion on social media. How might this be like a modern continuation of that myth of the revolt from the village?"

JKL: "No, I think that’s very smart of you to make that connection and I think it’s also --if you notice, people, especially on the coast --  love to publish those kinds of articles. Those kind of insider, tell-all, expose, here’s-what-it’s-really-like kind of things. It just reinforces what they already believe to begin with. So, yeah, I agree, that’s a great parallel."

KB: "When a large media organization, like The Atlantic or New York Times, runs a feature on a person or place in South Dakota, invariably the thesis and tone is set with 'although one would not expect to find performance art or halal meat, etc., on the dusty plains...' Why do you think this trope persists?"

JKL: "Well, for one thing, no one ever rebuts it. And this thing, the revolt from the village, has persisted from the 1920s, so we're coming up on a century. So, and there’s just not effective pushback against it and there really hasn’t been the time taken to delve down into it and explain why it’s wrong. And I don’t think our universities do a great job either, of talking about this and establishing regional traditions. Midwestern universities just don’t teach Midwestern history. And I don’t think very many of them teach Midwestern literature. Maybe a book here and there, but certainly not courses. Like, you could easily take a course on Southern literature or British literature or whatever. You know, it’s not too much to ask for a university like Minnesota for example, who has sixty historians and fifty English professors, to just have one person who would every once and while offer a course in Midwestern history or Midwestern lit. This is not a big imposition -- we’re not demanding a revolution here. But, unless this is done, these kinds of traditions and this school of writing just flip into oblivion."

KB: "In the book, especially in the conclusion, you say that one of the main reasons Midwestern regionalism has, and you wrote, 'retreated so far into the recesses of the historical imagination is due to the omnipresence of mass culture.' And you call it the 'flood of outside generica and other sundry coercions' -- which is a great line. And you think regionalism can reinvigorate local communities if it’s given its due. So, can you tell me specifically what elements of mass culture are deadening to regionalism? What specific elements of South Dakota regionalism would you see as an antidote to that generica?"

JKL: "Well, this is particularly a concern of parents. If all our kids do is consume mass culture, which is produced in Hollywood and Manhattan, people lose their sense of connection to a particular place. They lose their sense of rootedness. And they may see their own region as something boring where nothing happens and fly-over country. So they want to move to the coasts. This is one of the problems that people in South Dakotan wrestle with. You know, the younger kids moving to other places. Part of that is they don’t really know the full story of their own place. They don’t know their own identity because it’s not taught. So, what we need to do, along several different levels, is start to teach this a little bit. It will help people. If you have a good sense of identity, in who you are and where you come from, it just makes it easier to navigate the world. And makes you more cosmopolitan in the end because you don’t really understand other places in the world unless you understand where you came from. Otherwise, you’re just kind of floating about like an atom in space, tethered to nothing. So, some of these universities put a lot of money into global studies programs, etc., which is great, but you need a place to begin from. You need to know your own space and your own history so you have some way of comparing. Otherwise, you don’t really understand why another place is the way it is. So, I think regional studies should be a part of those kinds of programs. And it’s easy for us to do in South Dakota if we just rearrange the curriculum a little bit and teach some books that are connected to this place and if we’re just conscious in our universities. And you know, South Dakota universities are much smaller. But some of these big universities, these flagship universities in particular, need to do a much better job. I was at the University of Michigan this week in Ann Arbor and was talking to the person in the American Studies department. They don’t do any of this. They don’t teach Midwestern literature or history. I mean, this is a very large department with a lot of people. So, the leadership needs to come from them. And then, young grad students come into those programs and they maybe want to get a PhD, maybe some of them will say, 'that’ll be interesting. I’ll do a dissertation on this and I’ll work with Professor X who is the expert on Midwestern studies.' But those people don’t even exist now, so you’re not teaching the next generation how to carry on this cultural tradition."

KB: "How do you think the relative lack of literature and historical voice by or about non-white and, in some cases non-Christians, during the 1800s and the early 1900s, despite the presence of Native Americans and the migration of African Americans and Chinese and Hispanics and others has contributed to kind of an overall view of the Midwest as homogeneous and provincial? What I’m trying to say is that these communities have been here, but people haven’t always known that these communities are here. Do you think that contributes to a view of the Midwest as all-white, all-Christian, all-the-time? And I guess you’re saying this isn’t taught, so when we’re saying 'Midwest regionalism,' we’re not just throwing out the idea of   white, Christian folks. It all gets tossed out together because we have, and have had, other cultures here for quite a long time. There’s kind of an overall disservice there is what I’m trying to say."

JKL: "Yeah, absolutely. I mean, if you don’t understand the history of the Midwest as a region and all its peoples and who settled here and the various cultural traditions here, you’re -- by implication -- you’re not going to understand the history of Native Americans and African Americans in these regions, too. Absolutely, that goes together. The Midwest is the most diverse region the country. People don’t get this. If you go back and look, the very strains of settlement and where people came from, New England, the middle colonies, Pennsylvania Dutch, the Quakers, the southerners, most of the upland southerners, this huge wave of immigration of Irish and Germans and Scandinavians. And then in addition to that, during the Great Migration, you have a big influx of African Americans, and of course, Native Americans were here to begin with. So, it is, without question, the most diverse region. It’s not seen that way because people don’t really understand the history of the place."

KB: "In Michael Dirda’s review of your book in the Washington Post, he refers to Roger Ailes, the now deceased CEO of Fox News, saying that his dream for America is to be its best self, which could be exemplified by the Midwest around 1955. Dirda goes on to say that 'folks share the same nostalgia for a better America, now lost. Even if this is a false memory, it drives much of the desperation and acrimony of our current national politics.'  Do you agree?"

JKL: "I really don’t. That's Dirda’s interpretation and how he framed this. Which is fine, he can do whatever he wants. This book was mostly written over many years and probably was handed in in early 2016. So, it’s not as relevant as Dirda’s trying to make it out to be. (laughs) I’m just trying to say that every place has a history. Every place has a heritage. Other places, other regions throughout this country have put a lot of resources into studying their history. The Midwest has not. That’s a failure of the region and we just need to recover that path and understand it better. And we’re all going to be stronger and better off if we have an understanding of where we’ve been because that’s the first step toward making decisions about the future. So, I’m not Dirda and that’s good. I’m glad he’s making lots of lines and making connections and all of that that. That’s not my purpose."

KB: "What’s one thing I can do right now when I go on social media and I see the essay from the transplanted South Dakotan kind of dissing my state and I want to speak out on it in a positive way?"

JKL: "Tell them to read this book."

Tune in to In the Moment with Lori Walsh on SDPB Radio in July for an interview with Jon K. Lauck about his new book, From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920-1965.

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