When Sherwood Anderson published Winesburg, Ohio in 1919, critics recognized it as one of the first great works of modern fiction but above all as a rejection and “debunking” of the “smug provincialism,” the complacent Christianity, and the pinched morality of the American Midwest. That region’s appearance of quaint virtue, Anderson was said to have shown, masked lives of secret infidelity and quiet desperation. Along with works by Sinclair Lewis, Edgar Lee Masters, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anderson exemplified what the New York literary critic Carl Van Doren would call “the revolt from the village.” Genuine cultural achievement remained a monopoly of the East: If Pulitzer prizes consistently went to midwestern authors (nine of eleven between 1918 and 1929), well, the writers found their material only in attacking the region.
Scorn for the Midwest was not what I found in Anderson. As a college student and apprentice story writer in southern Michigan in the late ’90s, I spent long hours in an empty hotel kitchen, where I worked nights, reading Anderson’s vignettes. Between preparing meals for room service, I peered into his book and found the very expression of the part of the world I loved and a model for how I could chronicle its life nearly a century later.
Anderson had written that “everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified.” His eastern boosters could see in his stories only the crucifixion of would-be intellectuals on the cross of repressive decency and moral uplift. I found, to the contrary, a vindication of the ways of midwestern man to God.
The particularities of provincial life, lacking though they were in the violence and grit of the big city and the loamy depth and ivied antiquity of European tradition, nonetheless composed a body of experience in which the essential spiritual quests of human life became incarnate. Anderson had helped William Faulkner publish his first novel. Propped on a stool in that kitchen, I dreamed of creating a body of work that would chronicle the small agons of the Midwest as Faulkner had done for Mississippi.
It seems that, for all my naïveté, it was I rather than Van Doren who perceived Anderson’s meaning correctly. Anderson believed that “the great basin of the Mississippi River” would someday become “the seat of the culture of the universe.” The theme of his work, he said, was “not alienation but communion,” and he rejected the “terrible bigness” of the coastal cities in favor of “hope in the corn” and gratitude for “the life on the farm and in small communities.” So did Sinclair Lewis, whose Babbitt (1922) made him persona non grata through much of the Midwest. Lewis may have been a publicity-hungry, drunk, ugly, and bitter man, but he always insisted on his admiration for his native Minnesota and its people and encouraged younger writers, such as Willa Cather, to stay where they were rooted.
As Jon Lauck shows in this tersely written and richly researched, if frustratingly repetitive, new history, Van Doren won the day. The American Midwest entered the 20th century as a region at once stable and prosperous, a “warm center” that represented the future of our country, but within two decades it had been reduced in the national imagination to a crude caricature of banal Babbitts and prudish crabapples. Not only did this way of viewing the region distort the intentions of writers such as Anderson; it also uncritically misrepresented reality.
Lauck’s burden in this book is to account for how an entire section of the country could suffer under a sustained libel, and to advocate two corrections. He continues his call (begun in other books and essays) for a revived regional history — one that more accurately portrays the life of a great people and that recognizes how much richer and more complex that history is than Van Doren’s unfounded assertions have led many, including midwesterners themselves, to believe. Most of the book is dedicated to chronicling the plenteous achievements of midwestern regionalist literary figures and historians who embraced and advocated the terrain, democratic tradition, and moral spirit of their home.
But Lauck calls for more than a revised understanding of the past. He also summons his readers to a revived sense of place, to a deeper and more conscious rootedness, in American life. These are distinct contentions — one a matter of historiography, the other a question of the breadth and variety of the American cultural imagination — and Lauck does not seem always quite clear on how evidence about the professional practices of historians might be relevant to that general existential malaise of “rootlessness,” isolation, and placelessness frequently bemoaned in our day.
But his intuition is surely correct: Historians have retailed a partial and misleading story about the Midwest for a long time. That story affected how midwesterners came to understand themselves and led them to suffer from what the Irish writer Daniel Corkery dubbed a form of “provincialism”: a condition in which one judges one’s country not by its own standards but by those of a distant metropolis. The effect was to convince midwesterners that real culture, real life, happened only someplace else. Home became a place one departs from to make not just a living, but a life. And this, in turn, has retarded, even reversed, what would otherwise have been a deepening of cultural life in the Midwest over the past century. The region became the object of eastern metropolitans’ opprobrium at just that moment when it was beginning to come into its own. And, sadly, it never quite did.
The timeliness of such a book is beyond question. We are still reeling from a presidential election in which millions of voters from the so-called flyover states cast their ballots in evident protest of being forgotten and left behind by a coastal elite. The representatives of that elite have so far responded mostly with expressions of contempt that the forgotten did not just stay forgotten.
Lauck’s aim, like Corkery’s before him, is not so much to change the opinions of those nested in distant coastal cities, but to help revive the consciousness of midwesterners of themselves as rooted citizens of a distinctive region and as participants in a frequently misrepresented but fundamentally sound cultural tradition. What he offers is a beautiful regional imagination, in the hope that the midwestern consciousness should come to flourish now, even as the forces that first eroded it are more potent than ever.
– Mr. Wilson’s most recent book is The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition.