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Issue Date: September 2002 Issue

Writing Our Wrongs

From Lorain native Toni Morrison to Minnesotan Sinclair Lewis, the Midwest can claim more Nobel Prizes for literature than the rest of the country combined. But the book on Midwestern authors — and our support of their work — reads like a tale of woe.

Mark Winegardner
Last year, while sitting on a panel at the Midwestern Modern Language Association Conference in Cleveland, I asserted that there have been more great American writers from the Midwest than from the rest of the country put together.

At a literary gathering in New York, you can call New York the literary capital of America, and people will stroke their chins and nod, irked only that you felt the need to say something so self-evident. Brag up Southern writers in the South—at a literary gathering, a barbecue joint, a gas station, anywhere — and you can expect bourbon glasses raised in assent and at least one hoot of "Hell, yeah!" But I started riffing on the pre-eminence of the Midwestern writer — in the Midwest, in front of a crowd where everyone taught English at a university somewhere in the Midwest (everyone but me, and I used to) — and the audience actually gasped. What about the South, you moron? What about New England? Ever hear of New York?

Nice places, I said. But from Missourian Mark Twain on (as Chicagoan Ernest Hemingway observed, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.' "), the Midwest has been the largest supplier of high-test American lit.

As semi-accidental hyperbolic claims go (I was going to say that a preponderance of great American writers came from the Midwest; right before I did, I decided that "preponderance" was a really pretentious word and thereby may have overstated things), this one's at least defensible.

Consider America's nine winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The first, Sinclair Lewis, was born and raised in Minnesota and set his best work in the Midwest. He's followed by Eugene O'Neill (token New Yorker), Pearl S. Buck (born in West Virginia, on the eastern cusp of the Midwest), T.S. Eliot (from St. Louis), William Faulkner (token Southerner), Ernest Hemingway (born in Chicago, forged by Michigan), John Steinbeck (token Californian), Saul Bellow ("The Adventures of Augie March" begins "I'm an American, Chicago-born") and Toni Morrison (born and raised in Lorain).

That's 56 percent (I'm not counting Buck, who's not a Midwesterner and also not really a great writer). That's more than the rest of America combined.

The Nobel is only one measure, of course. But add to those five writers the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Minnesota), John Dos Passos (Chicago), Carl Sandburg (Illinois), Theodore Dreiser (Indiana), Thornton Wilder (Wisconsin), Marianne Moore (St. Louis), Tennessee Williams (raised in St. Louis), and Clevelanders Hart Crane and Langston Hughes. Add more recent writers (all of whom have won either the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award) like Minnesotan Tim O'Brien, Michiganders Theodore Roethke and Philip Levine, Iowan Mona Van Duyn, Illini Charles Johnson and Robert Olen Butler, Missourians James Tate, Jane Smiley, Carl Dennis and Jonathan Franzen, and Ohioans Michael Cunningham, Rita Dove, James Wright and (Clevelander) Mary Oliver.

This is a) just scratching the surface and b) defining "the Midwest" only as the five Great Lakes states (Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin) and the three just across the Mississippi River (Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri) and not the Plains states (which would weaken my argument anyway, since they don't contribute many greats once you get past Willa Cather and Ralph Ellison).

Despite being from the white-hot center of American literature, those of us who come from the Midwest or set our work there (or, worse, both) have to fight being pigeonholed as regional writers. Someone who sets 20 books in a four-block section of Manhattan would never be called "regional." But set 20 books in any 20 states that don't share a border with New York, and "regional writer" will sully the first sentence of your obituary.

This is, of course, because American publishing happens almost exclusively in New York, the most parochial big city in America.

A month after I finished my last novel, "Crooked River Burning," I came to New York, at my publisher's request, to discuss how they were going to market, promote and possibly even sell the book. Everyone's excited, I was told. Everyone loves it!

It was my sixth book. Whatever. Publishing six books teaches you to disregard praise of any sort. Still, I thought the book had turned out well. It's a love story, immersed in Cleveland history. What's not to like?

We went into a big conference room. The marketing director started the meeting and the first words out of her mouth (after she admitted she hadn't read the novel) were, "We see this as a strong regional book." If it does well in the Midwest, she said, there's hope it may catch on elsewhere.

They all seemed surprised when I asked if the elevator went to the roof, so I could go jump off.

I hit the roof instead. A book like "Crooked River Burning," if set in New York (say, Mark Helprin's "Winter's Tale" or Don DeLillo's "Underworld"), would never be called a "regional book." Yes, most Americans don't really care about Cleveland and how it got that way. But by and large, most Americans don't care about New York per se either, and yet we have to listen to that all the time.

I might as well have been speaking in tongues.

They did relent, a little, expanding my book tour to include the South as well (on the logic that I live there and it would be cheap).

Going on a book tour through the South taught me a lot. The South, suffused with the defiant fatalism of a conquered nation, is the only place where you can be branded a regional writer and not necessarily suffer for it. There are two good reasons for this, from which the Midwest could learn but never will.

First, the South supports its own. Bookstores shelve fiction in two principal places: "Fiction" and "Southern Writers." Often, "Southern Writers" occupies half the store: full of comfortable chairs, warm lighting, autographed pictures of any Southerner who ever typed the word "Mama." (My books are shelved in the dark, narrow aisles of "Fiction," where the only sound is the distant laughter of the cool kids over yonder in "Southern"; sometimes, actual tumbleweeds blow by.) Likewise, at universities not only in the South but throughout America, there are, as you read this, thousands of students reading books for their Southern Literature classes, and hundreds of grad students pounding out dissertations in hopes of someday securing a job as some university's Southern-lit person. Not to mention the various Institutes of Southern Culture. Not to mention the robust sales enjoyed by each annual edition of "New Stories from the South."

Imagine a "New Stories from the Midwest." Imagine an Institute of Midwestern Culture. Imagine if every university in the Midwest, and maybe elsewhere, offered a course in the literature of the Midwest.

No one would buy it. No one would take it seriously. No one would take the class.

And that's just in the Midwest. That's especially in the Midwest.

If our bookstores started a "Midwestern Writers" section, they wouldn't put Hemingway, Bellow or Morrison there. They wouldn't lug "The Things They Carried" there or reshelve "The Corrections." Instead, there'd be coffee-table books about nearby sports teams, books by local TV personalities and vanity-press books placed there to get their persistent authors off the store managers' backs. If your book wound up in "Midwestern," even your mom wouldn't go there to buy it.

Which leads me to the second thing: Southerners may leave the South, but it never leaves them. Southern writers tend to set most of their work in the South. It's a part of Southern culture to fight one's Southern-ness as a youth and, eventually, succumb to it; this is a huge theme in Southern writing and in the biographies of Southern writers. Plus, sooner or later, nearly all Southern writers settle back in the South. Faulkner was chronologically but not actually a member of the Lost Generation. His longest stretch away from the South came in Hollywood, where he felt he had to go to generate cash to pay his bills back in Mississippi. Once that dalliance was over, he spent the rest of his life in the South. Flannery O'Connor went to Iowa for grad school, but otherwise rarely left Georgia. Eudora Welty spent almost a century living in the same Mississippi house where she was born.

In contrast, many of the Midwest's best writers grew up, went to Harvard or someplace equally designed to eradicate Midwestern-ness and spent the rest of their lives in New York or someplace equally foreign, never to return. Some took this to extremes. Eliot's renunciation of his Midwestern-ness was the most severe: He left St. Louis for Harvard, left Harvard for London and a few years later became a British citizen. Hemingway set a book in Chicago and wrote nearly all his best work while in foreign countries. Hoosier Lew Wallace is the rare Midwestern writer who saw the world and returned home, where he wrote novels such as "Ben-Hur," set in the waning years of the Roman Empire.

The Midwest should support its own. Midwesterners should more often stay, either literally or metaphorically. The Midwest should embrace its heritage.

None of these things will ever happen, and even if they do, they'll be done badly. The Midwest has no talent for such things. What comes off in the South as swagger, as defiance, as preservation of a distinct voice and history would, in the sausage-fingered hands of Midwesterners, come off as boosterism. Or (to use a word thrust into the language by the Midwest's first Nobel Laureate) as Babbitry.

What the Midwest wants its sons and daughters to do is leave, accomplish big things in New York or LA. and, ideally, say nice things about where they came from. (If Drew Carey hadn't existed, it would have been necessary to invent him.) If they stay and try to accomplish things in the Midwest, friends and neighbors will look at them fanny; if you're so great, the looks will say, why are you still here?

After a while, it gets weird. After a while, even those of us in love with the likes of Cleveland find themselves writing every word of an article like this while overlooking a back yard filled with dogwoods, magnolias, live oaks and kudzu.

Mark Winegardner is the Burroway Professor of English and director of the creative writing program at Florida State University.

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