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An illustration of a family in the Midwest painting a fence in the colors of the American flag. Efi Chalikopoulou for Vox

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The danger of mythologizing America’s “heartland”

How the Midwest became a symbol of what’s ordinary, wholesome and practical — and why this idea endures.

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Part of Issue #12 of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

The Midwest, in many people’s minds, is normal.

Probably no one, if pressed, could give a meaningful definition of the “normal” that the Midwest supposedly embodies, but there’s evidence of a stubborn belief in it everywhere.

When politicians like Pete Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar want to seem safe, trustworthy, wholesome, and pragmatic, they often do so by playing up their connections to the region. A study a few years ago (one of those studies only useful for documenting preexisting prejudices, but that’s the point) ranked Indiana our country’s most “normal” state. Social scientists have chosen the Midwest as an object of fascination precisely because they thought it offered, as Helen and Robert Lynd — sociologists who studied small-town American life — once wrote, a “common denominator” of America.

Some vestige of this belief may account for the power granted to Iowa by our primary process. Most of all, pop culture normalizes the region: Think about how differently we would read the myth of Superman if his ship crashed in rural Connecticut, or how Fargo loses its irony (and everything else) if reimagined in Fargo, Arkansas. It must be Kansas that Dorothy returns to, not Schenectady or Dallas.

Anytime a region this large, this diverse, and this hard to define becomes a symbol for a concept that has the combined vagueness and life-regulating power of “normalcy,” it should tell us that we’re in the presence of myth. In its worst form, the association between Midwesternness and normalcy can become a proxy for whiteness, straightness, and/or maleness. There are people in the world who think that our outer-borough, rich-guy, New Yorker president better represents the Midwest than does Ilhan Omar, a Somali immigrant elected in 2018 to the House of Representatives from Minnesota, where she has lived for more than 20 years. This kind of thinking legitimizes prejudice while obscuring the region’s actual demographics, which are all over the place.

All that said, the idea’s appeal is powerful. Normalcy can give safety, warmth, the smugness of a person whose plate is full. It can make us feel invulnerable, passed over by history and its dangers, too broad for the grave, durable enough to survive biblical conflagration or climate change or, say, an ill-handled and sudden pandemic. Because it attracts us, normal-ness becomes a fetish, a performance, or a product. The Midwest, because of its perceived averageness, has long been forced to play a symbolic role in this process.

For all its appeal, normalcy is also alienating. I meet many Midwesterners who seem honestly to believe that their experiences are too banal for description, and, especially in my teaching, I meet young people who are so angry at themselves for their normal-ness that they can neither enjoy their lives nor change them. Among people who are less political — that is, among people who lean toward the right and don’t know it — you often hear a kind of general regret, a sense of having missed something, having blown a chance. The Midwest seems to offer us the chance to become normal, but what this means in practice is a paranoid sense that you’ve missed something irrevocable.

But precisely because it is a myth, the perceived normalcy of the Midwest does tell us a lot about ourselves. Myths always do. Early-20th-century American historians, intellectuals, writers, and politicians consciously constructed our image of the Midwest as the place where America averaged itself out.

The region’s myth and its name emerged around the same time. For a long time, I assumed — as do many people I’ve asked — that people say “Middle West,” or “Midwest” because they’re talking about the part of the country that had once been “the West,” but was less so as the country’s borders moved farther in that direction. It turns out that this isn’t true. Instead, it emerged in the early 20th century as a way of describing a region that was widely seen, illogically, as both dynamic and reassuringly old-fashioned. The name wasn’t about geography or history but the image of the place: halfway between city and country, rural past and industrialized future. It’s not “middle” in that it’s the middle of the country (just look at a map). It’s “middle” in the way a middle-aged person is considered to be “middle”: It’s even-tempered, mature. It’s America, aged just right.

Not accidentally, the 1910s and ’20s were the period when historian Frederick Jackson Turner enjoyed great scholarly and popular success. You may or may not recognize the name, but his influence on both historians and general readers has been vast. He first presented his influential “Frontier Thesis” in his 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” He argued that as the American frontier successively moved west — via war with and removal of Native Americans, the Louisiana Purchase, the Gold Rush, and the Homestead Act — the same five stages of civilization continually played themselves out.

First there were Native Americans and white frontiersmen disrupted by traders, who make room for pastoralists, who are followed by farmers and eventually farm towns, which yield to manufacturers, and, finally, cities. This thesis appealed to historians because, among other things, it offered a simple answer to the question “What is distinctive about the United States?” In an era defined by nationalism, this question seemed to need answering. The moving panorama of Turner’s five stages offered a visual image of what made the US special among nations. As Turner developed his ideas, he came to see the Middle West as the part of America tasked with “adapting democracy to the vast economic organization of the present.” It was where raw pioneer vigor and complex social organization lay together on a feather mattress, and what they produced was not simply people or a way of life but the American character itself.

Contemporary historians dispute virtually every aspect of Turner’s argument, but its sheer convenience made the narrative he created hard to pass up. Sociologists and social critics, historians, novelists — none of them could resist a concept that seemed to offer the Midwest (an abbreviation that caught on in midcentury) as a place where you could get direct access to what was “truly” American. And given how often Americans have tended to see ourselves, to position ourselves, as the latest or final stage of human history — the world’s “last best hope,” as an Illinois president once put it — it gives the Midwest an almost religious significance. Here, humanity has finally arrived.

There is something deeply unsettling in the idea that one has already arrived. It provokes disappointment on the one hand — is this all? — and anxiety on the other, a sense that one is not yet fit somehow. It leads to a strange kind of self-contempt and self-alienation.

When I was a teenager growing up in Michigan, I felt that if the place I lived in was normality incarnate, then normality itself was the wrong fit for me. If history seemed like something that happened to other people, located elsewhere, so did the future. I had no expectations for it; it hadn’t even occurred to me to have expectations for it. Why rush your way into more of the same?

Sometimes I walked over to the 76 gas station, where two friends of mine worked the night shift. There they conducted a kind of ongoing dirtbag salon: free drinks from the soda fountain, Dead Milkmen on the tape player. One evening, a guy I vaguely knew who had graduated high school early stopped to buy milk. We walked to his house, and he spoke a truth about his life that was so obvious and so personal that I’d never acknowledged it was also the truth of mine: I had to get out of here. It was so lonely.

The Midwest in books and movies has given us some of our classic images of loneliness, a sense of impermanence on the landscape, of a fragile hold on the place you call home. Think of the man in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, who writes his thoughts on scraps of paper and then throws them on the ground. Or Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, calling from her garage to no one. Of Toni Morrison’s Sula, whose singularity isolates her even as it makes her a kind of hero.

The alternative to this loneliness is to grapple with the particularity of Midwestern lives and Midwestern history. The region was never normal. The mythmaking of writers like Turner smooths out a long history of Midwestern struggles over worker power and human rights, land speculation and Indian removal. It also papers over a long history of resistance to these sorts of depredations.

From the 1870s to the 1920s, the Midwest was swept by the Granger, Populist, and Progressive movements in turn, and all of these movements struggled to reconcile the imperative to represent “ordinary Americans” in their fight against a wealthy elite, and the short-term gains that could come from defining “ordinary Americans” in racially exclusive ways. These movements were largely white; indeed, one goal of the Grangers was to reunite Northern and Southern farmers through a common cause. Some Populists, on the other hand, initially attacked Jim Crow and envisioned a coalition of low-income people of all races. This multiracial solidarity was a promising development. Nearly 130 years later, it ... remains promising, as beautiful and elusive things do.

Midwestern history offers us visions more radical and more particular than these. In the early 19th century, Native American leaders and intellectuals from the modern-day Midwest, such as Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh, and later Black Hawk, helped create the idea of pan-Indian resistance to colonization — including the idea of “Native American” as a unified identity. Religious groups and social experimenters built communal would-be utopias all throughout the region in the 1830s and 1840s, some of which you can still visit (Amana, Iowa; New Harmony, Indiana). One historian credits Brooklyn, Illinois, with the distinction of being the first all-black town in America — a town founded on the idea, surely as radical in the 19th century as communism, that black Americans could be free.

The Midwest is also dotted with formerly radical and utopian communities, towns, villages, and colleges founded for the sole purpose of resisting the spread of slavery. If we see the auto industry as Midwestern, we should see the labor power that grew in that crucible as Midwestern too. The Movement for Black Lives, created in 2014 as a response to the national visibility of racist police brutality, is partly a Midwestern creation — it began with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, grew at a Cleveland conference, and shut down a Minnesota airport terminal. The resistance white supremacist Richard Spencer met in Michigan was one of the reasons he scaled back his public appearances. Today, Immigration and Customs Enforcement struggles to find a Midwestern city that will let it build a detention camp because of Midwestern anti-racist and anti-fascist activism.

For Frederick Jackson Turner, the Midwest was the place where the nation on the leading edge of history found equilibrium. But it’s actually a site of ongoing, ever-changing political struggle. As Midwesterners think about how to live decently together in a warmer, more crowded place, it is this history, not the myth of their own banality, to which they need to turn. This history also helps us see the particularity of the place — which is to say, it makes it easier to see with love. At the same time, the squareness of the place, the repetition with slight variation, reminds us that each part of it, each person in it, is itself by the slenderest of chances. You feel, wandering the Midwest, like your town could have been any of these towns, like you could have been any of these people.

This feeling, like our history, points more than one way. It can make you ingrown, like a toenail: Why can’t I get the break I’m supposed to? But it can also cause you to think of those other selves: that poorer self, that queerer self, that darker self, that privileged self. It can tell you that you must try to care for all those selves as though they were you — as though you were made from the same soil and headed back to it. In this night-black, dirt-black dark, who even knows for sure who they are, who I am? Or who we might yet be?

Phil Christman is a writer and an English lecturer at the University of Michigan. His book Midwest Futures will be published in April.

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