If Hutton imagined a Midwest just reaching high noon, more recent writers use a tone that varies between chastened and scared. If the Midwesterner of the early twentieth century represented an America coming into its own, the Midwesterner of the twenty-first symbolizes a center failing to hold. If “anxious eyes” are still fixed here, it is to survey a representative unease.
So writes Phil Christman – whose own tone is anything but chastened and scared – in Midwest Futures, a book I had in some ways been hoping for since reading Christman’s essay, “On Being Midwestern” in The Hedgehog Review a few years ago. I’ve spent the past six days with the book (I’d say that I “plowed” through it over six days, but then only those who’ve already read the book would see the humor in it), and I imagine I’ll return to it again soon.
And it was by way of Metheny that I returned to a James Baldwin essay which gave me language for understanding Christman’s project. “America Undefined” takes its title from a line in Baldwin’s 1959 New York Times essay, “The Discovery of What it Means to be an American.”
Rereading the essay, I was struck by resonances with Christman’s project. As Baldwin writes,
Every society is really governed by hidden laws, by unspoken but profound assumptions on the part of the people, and ours is no exception. It is up to the American writer to find out what these laws and assumptions are. In a society much given to smashing taboos without thereby managing to be liberated from them, it will be no easy matter.
It is precisely this challenge to which Christman has risen, as he unearths the “unspoken but profound assumptions” behind what we think are our unspoken but profound assumptions. These assumptions are made, perhaps chiefly, by Midwesterners, themselves:
What all this suggests is that the Midwest is present in the minds of (some) Midwesterners as a huge blur, one that they lob descriptions at rather than describing. They claim big, vague virtues and accept big, diffuse blame. Their traits and virtues are simply those of people, of Americans. When they look at themselves, they see anyone.
Over and over, Christman shows us the price of unknowing that we pay for our vagaries. Take, for example, the region’s unknown story, blurry present, hidden treasures, and unimaginable possibilities all concealed by tropes, like “normal.”
The Midwest became central to so many of this country’s stories about itself in part because some of it is naturally rich, productive. But that is not a normal thing to be; it is precisely a gift, something generous and prodigious. That we take such a good place for granted, as though its usefulness for human life were proof of its dullness and interchangeability, allows us to misuse it, and ourselves, and each other, who are marked as boring by having come from this boringly good thing, or marked as threatening because they didn’t. It takes a thousand years for the earth to make three centimeters of topsoil. (Climate change encourages floods, which wash topsoil out to sea.)
To see possible Midwest futures more clearly, Midwesterners will need to stop seeing “normal” as their unquestionable status and start exploring the rich inheritance of possibility that “normal” conceals. We need to understand, in the end, that there’s nothing normal about normal.
To read and to listen
Scroll up. All links above are recommended. And if you listen to “America Undefined,” pay special attention to minutes nine through twelve of that track. I find them mesmerizing.
To listen and cook
I recently recommended Sam Sifton’s recipe for “Dry-Rubbed London Broil.” (One reader of this newsletter has already given it a try with his family, and it was a smash-hit.) This week I listened to a Fresh Air interview with Sifton about cooking during the pandemic and about his new cookbook, See You on Sunday. Give it a listen.
In the time it takes you to listen to the Sifton interview, you can prepare this slow-cooker recipe (not Sifton’s but from the NYT Cooking section that he edits) for Slow Cooker Honey-Soy Braised Pork With Lime and Ginger . We tried it this week (with a bit of honey-sriracha-sesame oil mixture added about halfway through its time in the slow-cooker) and it was delicious.
NB: Not an image from our kitchen, but from The New York Times. Among other differences, our rice-to-pork ratios might have been more heavily weighted toward the pork.