Saturday, February 07, 2009

Of Mid & West (& Boy Cows)

Getting ready to talk about the Midwest next week is causing me (allowing me?) to get my thoughts together regarding what I really think of the Midwest. So here are my preliminary thoughts. (And what do you think about when you think about the Midwest? What do you think about when you think about all the other regions of the US? Feel free to share. Sharing is free.)

The Midwest is something to fly over, so that Midwest and mid-air are synonymous.

Artists don’t get a lot of community, a lot of face-time community, with other artists in rural areas, and the Midwest has a large share of rural areas. But the Midwest also has a fair share of large cities, so that the Midwest cannot be one thing. As really any category of any place breaks down into further categories, so that one can’t gesture toward an encompassing definition without rendering all statues headless.

What is community anyway? How about virtual community? One can travel a great distance in one’s armchair in Maryville, MO, population 10, 600, true. That’s my Midwestern small town, much like, I imagine, small towns most anywhere, if not in specifics, than certainly in difference from most cities anywhere. And virtual community counts for a lot. The Internet changes everything. Or nearly everything.

There’s an urban and rural split in America that’s much more important and noticeable than any geographic split, if not in self-definition, or shared text (as most everyone in the US shares the common experience of television anyway), then certainly in daily experience. Why do cities mostly tend toward Democrats and towns toward Republicans? That’s a much more fundamental question for America than regionalism.

Still though, region must matter, but how? There must be something one can say about one region that differentiates it from another. Landscape maybe? Ratio of Wal-Marts to minimum-wage earners?

Ted Kooser feels very Nebraska to me. That would seem a lot of people’s version of the Midwest. But, on the other hand, Keith Waldrop is from Kansas. And James Tate is from Kansas City. Mary Jo Bang and Carl Phillips live in St. Louis, and their work doesn’t seem to shout out MIDWEST to anyone. Maybe, in a way, though, at least in the work of James Tate, I can imagine I feel a Midwestern sensibility. The difficulty of narrative steeped in an ever-changing past. The continuing problem of the one and the many. But those are as much American themes as they are Midwestern.

Is there a Midwest subject matter? Do we talk about corn more than other people do?

Experience must inform sensibility. Take Back at the Barnyard for instance. Back at the Barnyard is a cartoon on Nickelodeon that is a spin-off of the 2006 film Barnyard. Most interesting for rural viewers, is the fact that the main character, Otis, is apparently a boy cow. The idea of boy cows is a new idea, and one could tip one’s hat to Nick for the progressive inclusion of the first transgender lead in a television show, but for the fact that it’s a completely unintentional inclusion. And the fact that Otis, the macho wannabe boy cow—what would be called a bull otherwise—has prominent udders, and in moments when his loveable cowardice rears its head, he is often heard to exclaim “milk me.” It’s udderly ridiculous, as the over-used joke goes.

Rural Midwesterners, as with any people who know anything about farms other than something one dives by (where one usually only sees cows, so we could excuse the definitional miscue I suppose), can laugh at the television from time to time. As with any “other,” we can laugh at the voice-over narration, as our experience comes back to us warped. But that is still the official voice coming back at us, the “voice that empties” (to use Michael Palmer’s phrase).

There’s a lot of space in the Midwest, but that’s also the case for many other non-urban parts of the US. In the Midwest, much of the space is managed in some way, unlike the open spaces of the West and Southwest, that enter the imagination as wild, the spaces of the Midwest are farmed. Or at least they are imagined that way.

So what have we heard of the Midwest? Well, Midwesterners are, by and large, not boisterous, and their cooking habits tend toward the bland. And there are a lot, a LOT, of white people in the Midwest. And it’s the heartland. When living in the Midwest, however, one does not get the feeling one is at the heart of anything. There’s no more a feeling of what it means to be an American here than there is anywhere else. Newspapers seem to come from far away, always about other people. What they show doesn’t look like anything we see out our windows. Perhaps that’s where the Midwestern, or rural, skepticism comes from. The distrust of government. But yet the Midwest isn’t so far away from the narrative of America that it has the level of militias and doomers as the more exurban states do. That’s certainly something in our favor.

A foreign student (from China) remarked to a colleague of mine that her biggest surprise about coming to Maryville, about as “interior” as one can get in the Midwest, was that we had cars.

I think there is not now, nor was there ever, a Midwest. We’re a myth made up by politicians and writers who needed a location for the “heartland.” They—and we—need a place where there is no flux. A lynch-pin. Something to know of, without question, as America. But even that, I believe, has been replaced, at least for the time being, by the postmodern version of the Midwest, the Suburban Abstract, with its own version of the fantasy of what the rural Midwest was, but with cleaner cars, and curbs, and within easy driving distance of good restaurants.

I tried to complete a circumference. I took out my grandmother’s yardstick, the one she kept behind the dropdown ironing board. I started in Lancaster, Ohio, and then attempted a line to the Arkansas-Missouri border, and then over as far as the eastern Colorado border, and then up into Nebraska as far as Omaha, and then as straight as possible east to the Twin Cities, swallowing Iowa, and then off into the imagination, skipping all the large cities (and the entire Great Lakes region).

I’ve been here now for years and I’ve never found it, as it’s all in the imagination already, there with the Boy Cows and the purely American.


At 2/07/2009 2:58 PM, Blogger JeFF Stumpo said...

Two comments (for now):

One (not thought-out): Midwest as an inhabited ocean. It's rural areas very different than those of the Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, Rockies, West Texas, etc. Flatter than any of of these except West Texas, by which it differs through cultivation. The sense that one could very well get lost, but that there is always a farmhouse light on the horizon at night. Unlike the Northeast, where the farmhouse lights are closer than the horizon, or the UP (which is a different sort of Midwest) where the lights are swallowed by forest. A boatlike sense that your home is your home, a buffer against the world. Except in the smallest of towns, where everybody knows what happens in each other's boats but nonetheless pretend not to care so long as the fleet don't rock too much. Snow prevents it from being like the Southeast, seasons impart a cyclical sensibility rather than timeless/history-laden one.


At 11/27/2011 1:55 AM, Anonymous online essay writer said...

I think traditional definitions of the Midwest include the Northwest Ordinance "Old Northwest" states and many states that were part of the Louisiana Purchase.


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