I recently took one of those online quizzes to test your accent, and it declared, accurately, that I come from the "Central U.S." The test said my accent is essentially no accent, the one that's employed by television news anchors, who are supposed to be from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
But those of us who hail from the Midwest know that it is very much a specific place, with specific attitudes and rhythms, including in its literature.
It's true, Midwestern literature doesn't deliver the immediate jolt of recognition as something like Southern literature with its Faulkner and O'Connors. Southern literature explores big things, like slavery, civil rights, religion. It is a kind of battleground of voices elbowing each other for space in the collective narrative.
Midwestern writers securely housed in the canon come to mind a little more slowly, with less volume: Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser.
I have a playlist on my iPod labeled "melancholy." It contains some of my favorite songs, including a heavy dose of Wilco, songs like "Muzzle of Bees" and "Solitaire" and "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)." For me, it is this feeling of melancholy, an indefinable, but not necessarily unwelcome, quietude tinged with sadness that describes the Midwest and its literature.
Midwestern literature tells the stories of ordinary people who want ordinary things, like happiness, love, connection. They often fall short, but in that wanting there is some measure of hope and beauty. Too much ambition is often met with unfortunate ends — just ask Dreiser's Sister Carrie — because the Midwest is about putting your head down and working, and not demanding too much glory. But that doesn't mean our lives aren't worth chronicling.
Midwestern literature is like our landscape, flat and featureless unless and until you pay attention and look closely. With this attention, the rewards multiply, because Midwestern literature has a unique ability to break our hearts. It brings on a kind of lovely ache, a soul pain that we will nonetheless survive because, after all, we are Midwesterners.
For me, Sherwood Anderson is the Rosetta Stone of Midwestern writers. The story-cycle of "Winesburg, Ohio" was famously described as "too gloomy" by Anderson's own publisher, and for sure, the stories contain more than their share of despair, but that's what makes the moments of release from the isolation the book chronicles so powerful, even when the events are tragic on the surface.
For example, the character Windpeter Winters in the story "The Untold Lie" purposefully drives his train of horses into an oncoming locomotive. Windpeter, we are told, "screamed with delight when the team ... rushed straight ahead to certain death." Some of the boys in town later "have seasons of wishing they could die gloriously instead of just ... going on with their humdrum lives."
These "humdrum lives" — the main subject of Midwestern literature — make for a high degree of difficulty, but also the most satisfying of results. Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim ("Slaughterhouse-Five") is the tragiccomic exemplar of Midwestern literature, an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.
The Midwest can claim some measure of credit for F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose look at Jazz Age New York seems distinctly colored by his Minnesota roots. David Foster Wallace is clearly a Midwestern writer. Despite their images as members of the East Coast literati, so are Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides. We can claim Jane Smiley, Louise Erdrich, Stuart Dybek and Tim O'Brien. The list goes on.
I'm tempted to say, "Midwest is best," but that wouldn't be very Midwestern of me.
Biblioracle John Warner is also the author of "Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.
The Biblioracle offers his recommendations:
This week, everyone gets a Midwestern author.
1. "Fugitive Colors" by Lisa Barr
2. "The Chaperone" by Laura Moriarty