Last week I was reading The Washington Post’s obituary of conservative power broker Roger Ailes and paused at this sentence about the disgraced head of Fox News: “He told a biographer that his dream for America was that it be allowed to return to its best self, which he put in the Midwest in about 1955.” As it happens, Ailes grew up in blue-collar Warren, Ohio, not far from my own home town of Lorain. This is classic Rust Belt territory, where a lot of folks share the same nostalgia for a better America, now lost. Even if this is a false memory, it drives much of the desperation and acrimony of our current national politics.
Jon K. Lauck’s “From Warm Center to Ragged Edge” surveys “the erosion of Midwestern literary and historical regionalism” between 1920 and 1965. This may sound dull as ditch water to those who believe that the “flyover” states are inhabited largely by clodhoppers, fundamentalist zealots and loudmouthed Babbitts. In fact, Lauck’s aim is to examine “how the Midwest as a region faded from our collective imagination” and “became an object of derision.” In particular, the heartland’s traditional values of hard work, personal dignity and loyalty, the centrality it grants to family, community and church, and even the Jeffersonian ideal of a democracy based on farms and small land-holdings — all these came to be deemed insufferably provincial by the metropolitan sophisticates of the Eastern Seaboard and the lotus-eaters of the West Coast.
Lauck traces the birth of this condescension to the 1920s, when writers and critics began to attack life in the Midwest as narrow-minded and repressive. Books such as Edgar Lee Masters’s “Spoon River Anthology,” Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” and Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street” quickly exemplified what has been called “the revolt from the village.” City slickers like H.L. Mencken and magazines such as the New Yorker further ridiculed the Midwest as a backward, second-class culture of yokels and rednecks who lacked a dedication to the intellect, let alone sensitivity to the arts.
A few critics, such as Bernard DeVoto, argued against these simplistic orthodoxies. As Nebraska writer Bess Streeter Aldrich movingly declared, “A writer may portray some of the decent things of life around him and reserve the privilege to call that real life too.” Many writers, as well as artists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, found “succor and support in the social institutions of the rural and small-town Midwest.” In general, Midwesterners tended to reject what North Dakota historian James Malin called the “literature of satire, sneer, and smear” and stood up for “the typical American, the common man, and his institutions.”
From an early date, the proponents of regionalism recognized two powerful enemies: mass media and federalism. The first led to a bland homogenization of culture and what Josiah Royce called a “monotonously uniform triviality of mind.” The latter, starting with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, lessened the ability of localities to govern themselves. After World War II, international fears of communism and atomic war further strengthened the power of Washington, as federal institutions assumed more and more control over American civic life.
Lauck’s last chapter looks at how historians have studied the heartland. Initially, many academics at regional universities were born in the Midwest and viewed themselves as legatees of its values, but over time an increased professionalization led younger teachers to emphasize scholarly success among their peers rather than commitment to the intellectual well-being of their communities. In this section, Lauck looks hard at the opposing ideas of Richard Hofstadter, author of “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” and Michigan State’s Russell Kirk, author of “The Conservative Mind.” He also implicitly endorses the view — of historians Frederick Jackson Turner and Christopher Lasch — that smaller communities and neighborhoods, not large cities, encourage a vigorous engagement in politics. As Lasch noted, conversation lies at the foundation of civic life. Not surprisingly, Lauck’s own previous book, “The Lost Region ” called for a revival of Midwest-oriented history.
“From Warm Center to Ragged Edge” is scholarly — there are as many pages of notes as of text — and Lauck does favor long sentences, which may take getting used to. But this is an important book and these days, especially, deserves to be read and debated.
One might say the same about the publications from Belt Publishing. While “How to Speak Midwestern,” by Edward McClelland, is mainly an amusing glossary to the lingo of the region’s more industrial states, Mark Athitakis’s “The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt” is more serious. It rightly praises the Midwestern novels of Marilynne Robinson, Jeffrey Eugenides, Toni Morrison and Jonathan Franzen, but also points out works of comparable merit that warrant rediscovery. These include the science fictional “On Wings of Song,” by Thomas M. Disch; William McPherson’s elegant portrait of a Michigan childhood, “Testing the Current”; Nancy Willard’s “Things Invisible to See ,” which features “an Ann Arbor man pitting his earthbound baseball team against one led by Death”; and “Divine Days ,” Leon Forrest’s magisterial attempt to write not just the great African American novel, but the Great American Novel period.
To these books about the Midwest, let me end by adding a related one about the South: “Land: The Case for an Agrarian Economy” was written in the 1930s by the distinguished poet and critic John Crowe Ransom and only recently rediscovered and edited by Jason Peters for Notre Dame Press. In it Ransom joins Lauck in championing the values fostered by rural and small-town America. Is this just wishful thinking? Perhaps, and yet don’t we sometimes need to step back before we can leap forward?
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursday for Style.
By Jon K. Lauck
Univ. of Iowa. 252 pp. Paperback, $27.50