Narrative Happens

Lauck BookBook Review: From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920-1965 by Jon Kevin Lauck.  University of Iowa Press, 2017.

As the American Civil War ended, what we now call the Midwest was an influential region for the reuniting nation.  Abraham Lincoln had celebrated the “great interior region” in his second address to Congress, calling it “the great body of the republic.”  After 1860, six of seven Presidential elections were won by candidates from Mississippi Valley states.

The religious, frugal, hardworking, family and community focused Midwestern culture was seen by some as the dynamic American future.

How did this vital heartland turn into maligned “fly over country” in popular stereotype?  Historian Jon Kevin Lauck sets out to explain this.

His book’s title is an inversion of Nick Carraway’s point of view in Minnesota native F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby.  Carraway, the character who narrates the story, initially rejects his own Midwest hometown as a “ragged edge” of emerging America and heads for the toney East, only to recoil from its destructive materialism and self-centered culture.  He comes to revalue his Midwestern heritage as a “warm center of the world.”

While Fitzgerald’s novel unfolded that way, Lauck points out, with copious attention to primary sources (he provides 135 pages of notes) that the American point of view went in the opposite direction, initially esteeming the Midwest as the warm center or even heartland of the nation but eventually sneering at it as ragged edge to be ignored.

Lauck lays out two major socio-historical trajectories.  The first can be summed up by a different (and radically silenced) regional voice that precedes the Euro-American farm village culture to which the book refers:

“There are no mistakes. Everything is equal on the journey, and what will happen in your path will happen.”  Floyd Looks for Buffalo Hand, Oglala Lakota

The discrete voice of Midwestern history and literature was in part muted by historical events that just happened how and when they did.  The Great Depression and World War Two elevated the national identity in suffering, sacrifice and ultimately global position at the expense of regional identities.  The ensuing Cold War and other aspects of globalization led to changes in academic work, necessarily lifting exploration of the forces moving nations and looking less at regional themes.

This is explored in the latter half of the book.  It’s less dramatic than what precedes it but is necessary to keep From Warm Center to Ragged Edge a work of honest history rather than a culture-war exercise in…

Narrative.  Geez, I’m coming to hate that word.  It’s just a genteel substitute for propaganda.  But what Lauck describes and, more critically, documents in the first part of this book is the creation of a damning narrative that silenced most Midwestern voices in favor of a few who were embraced by anti-regional elites.

Lauck lays out the Village Revolt narrative by which Eastern (primarily New York) publishers glommed onto a few good Midwestern writers and elevated their critiques of farm town life to label the whole region as, in one influential Eastern writer’s words, “a desert of human sand! – the barrenest spot in all Christendom, surely, for the seed of genius to fall in.”

While Lauck catalogs how the writers lumped together as the Village Revolt school did, in fact, overthrow sentimental stereotypes of Midwest life, he’s just as meticulous in showing how several of them rejected the revolt narrative.  Assumed rebel Sherwood Anderson was blunt, “There wasn’t anything to this revolting.”  Sinclair Lewis, whose Main Street was like a Bible for anti-Midwest narrative, was panned by the Eastern critics when in subsequent works he called his upbringing “a good time, a good place, and a good preparation for life” and called for better study and articulation of the region’s culture.

The hostility to all things Midwestern – including Christianity – drips from the quotes Lauck mines from newspapers, magazines, literary journals and all kinds of other primary sources.  It’s the kind of culture warrior language still with us today, belittling some voices while claiming to extol inclusion and tolerance for all.

(Boy, does that ring bells for me as a clergyman in a mainline denomination headquartered in the East.  But I digress).

With a constant supply of quotes from quality writers and thinkers, Lauck’s book has vigor and wit.  This history brings the past to life and engages the present.

There are questions I would raise, were I an annoying student at a Lauck lecture.  For example, does the initial success and continued cable presence of a show like Little House on the Prairie, from the writings of Midwesterner Laura Ingalls Wilder, reveal less popular penetration bythe Village Revolt narrative than his book allows?

Or how about the sentiment for small family farmers (in Iowa, no less!) expressed in 1984’s Country, for which Jessica Lange received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations from the coastal elite crowd?

Some regional writers are doing well expressing Midwest culture (and finding publishers), for example Kathleen Norris in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and Dan O’Brien in Buffalo for the Broken Heart – which got the attention of Hollywood actors and activists.

Might it be that there’s a latent affection for the Midwestern values, even for sentimental presentations of them, especially in unsettled times?  As Don Henley sang in 1989,

Who knows how long this will last
Now we’ve come so far, so fast
But, somewhere back there in the dust
That same small town in each of us
I need to remember this
So baby give me just one kiss
And let me take a long last look
Before we say goodbye

I’m a transplant from the West Coast to the Midwest, and found my blood boiling from time to time as I read From Warm Center to Ragged Edge. I’m still a bit of a fish out of water here, but couldn’t help but resonate with Lauck’s documentation of a region and people – even if not my own – dissed by a concocted narrative.

We can learn much from Lauck’s history, but even more from his open eared, open minded and open hearted approach.

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