The Midwest has no real watershed from which it can mark its occasions as being either "before" or "after," and the westward migration that populated it then rolled on past, leaving it settled and solid, but taking with it the idea of the frontier. It is an area bounded on the east by the staid culture its inhabitants originally deserted, on the west by a culture more adventurous than they cared to move on to, and on the south by a region whose people, for better or for worse, are held together by the sticky residue of a lost war.
In "Growing Up in the Midwest," Clarence A. Andrews has put together a volume from which one comes away with a clarified vision of a region that is generally perceived as too amorphous, too vast and varied, to hold clearly as one image in the mind's eye. He has chosen carefully among the works of 22 writers whose poems, impressions and stories are collected in this handsome, unpretentious and rewarding book.
In the tales and essays by authors who were born before the turn of the century -- tales such as "A Prairie Town," by James Stevens, or "The Woodshed Poet," by James Norman Hall -- there is an exuberance of the spirit, an enthusiasm for the country, that is gone in the reminiscences of writers of more recent times. One senses that early in the century midwesterners had every reason to be intoxicated by the possibilities of a culture so multifaceted and unconstricted. It used to be that the term "midwesterner" signified an adventurer, a pioneer, a builder, a founder. But in an excerpt from Patricia Hampl's remarkable book, "A Romantic Education," she says, "You don't feel that greatness here." Midwesterners believe "that life goes on somewhere else . . . It ends up as a general longing for life . . . What we need is a sense that we're living life here right now."
This sliver of Hampl's sensibility is, in fact, the watershed for this volume, because she explains to us better than anyone what the Midwest has come to mean to the generations following those first settlers. "I became a snob in the midwestern way; the provincial anguish. My grandmother I feared, had migrated to Nowheresville. My family would have thought this nonsense. They loved Minnesota, preferred a 'small city' like St. Paul, and without knowing it, caused me to love it eventually too. I spent my moody girlhood aloof from my town, saving myself for the World. A midwesterner down to my toes."
Lacking a benchmark beyond the gradual change brought about by the coming of the railroads, midwesterners also lack, as those in other regions do not, any way of making class distinctions except by the measure of a person's wealth. Perhaps as a holdover from pioneer days, material acquisition is power more so than anywhere else. Inevitably one thinks of Fitzgerald, and Hampl, who grew up in his home town, explains to us the legitimacy of his angst. "F. Scott Fitzgerald, born here, was predestined by this working replica of capitalism -- the wealthy above, the poor below -- to be obsessed by the rich . . . I felt his romantic cry that 'the rich are different from you and me' -- a pure St. Paul cry -- was more to the point than the rejoinder Hemingway gave himself in the anecdote. . . . behind the indefensible rhapsody of a romantic statement . . . there is the hard fact of how people actually live."
This point is made in numerous selections in the book, so that finally we come to understand it with the same urgency felt by these midwesterners. Garrison Keillor, whose marvelous story, "Drowning 1954," is included here, is "somehow making the connection between money and intelligence, between money and culture . . . began buying The New Yorker and carrying it openly 'as a sign of class,' " Andrews writes. "Keillor suggests that he and his peers betrayed their own class; they viewed its members as 'not too bright.' The secret desire is to be like the Kennedys, graceful and easy and liberal and rich."
Whatever else it may be -- and it is many other things, well catalogued in this collection -- the Midwest is rich territory for its writers. Bordered as they are all around by the smugness of more easily categorized societies, midwesterners are living their lives right there right now. They live in a region with an amazingly fertile and heterogeneous disposition that could scarcely be exhausted by literary exploration.
The South has always been a lush field for its writers, and the body of literature that has sprung forth from that territory should humble the boldest of editors. Anyone attempting a definition of things southern should proceed with the utmost trepidation, and "Growing Up Southern" is a surprising disappointment in that regard, especially in light of its sponsor, the usually thorough Southern Exposure magazine.
The title is as tempting as a ripe plum, and the opportunity to find out what it was like to grow up southern as opposed to any other way is terribly seductive. But this book doesn't investigate that situation; it "explores the continuities and chasms between the lives of southern children today and in the past." The result is a hodgepodge of anecdotes, children's poems, oral histories and photographs, culled from a number of sources. The editing is careless and misleading; the identification of sources is indefinite and often only partially accurate, and acknowledgments are not always given where acknowledgments are due. All in all this experiment is marred throughout by a peculiar infusion of editorial cuteness that simply serves to lessen the dignity of the separate contributions.