"This is Iowa...and not only are the people nice, they have a hard time believing anyone else is not nice." -- Joseph Geha in the essay "Where I'm From - Originally."
I'm reading a collection of essays written by Midwestern authors called Townships, edited by Michael Martone and published in 1992. I've had this book for about 9 months, and I no longer remember what reference led me to it; I'm simply grateful that Martone solicited these essays and published them.
When I entered the MFA program at the U of A, I had only a vague sense of my subject matter; however, the creative writing program at Arkansas is, if nothing else, a program built on the strong literary tradition of Southern writers. Two particular classes got me thinking about regionalism and where I fit as a writer. One was Dr. Brinkmeyer's class on the Southern Novel and the other was one of Skip Hays' form & theory classes, the one on the novel. Reading Faulkner, O'Connor, and a host of others, it became clear that there was a definite sense of what it means to be Southern and to write. Reading broadly, I could also identify this definitive regionalism in authors of New England and the West. Even authors who exist outside the mainstream in these areas echo, reflect, and refract that sense of region. What's left? The Midwest. What are the basic tenets of a Midwestern regionalism/aesthetic? I have struggled with that question ever since.
Martone makes a point in his introduction that the Midwest has defied definition from the beginning. For all intents and purposes, it stretches from the Ohio Valley to the Rocky Mountains. It covers eastern forests, sweeping prairies, all the great northern rivers that feed the Mississippi, and the short grasses of the plains. This is a massive amount of land peopled by a great diversity. While many of us are connected to the land through a family history with farming, there are just as many of us connected to the urban blue collar of factories & city jobs.
So, does a sense of Midwestern regionalism exist in literature? Does it begin with Willa Cather and Sinclair Lewis? I think the net surrounding and defining what it means to be a Midwestern author is there; however, it must be larger, looser and more accommodating than the rest. The essays in Townships are helping me grapple with my own sense of regionalism.
I laughed at the quote from Geha because I am constantly frustrated when faced with people who are just mean-spirited and small-minded. None of this is to suggest that Midwesterners (or myself) are constantly good and moral; we are all flawed individuals.
Perhaps place no longer matters quite so much in literature, given our global age. Perhaps these questions of regionalism drift to the antique. Perhaps my own personal struggle between rootedness and mobility lacks the power of political, economic, and social struggles. All I can do is write what comes out of me and try to say something true about my experiences in this lifetime.