Emily, for the most part you have chosen the American Midwest—a place and a time—(or it has chosen you) as the setting for your work. I have found in other artists that old-timey, folk America (blithely uninfluenced by Europe in the teeth of Henry James claiming that we inescapably are influenced by it) can be a deep river, an environment that can yield, the way symbols can yield, feelings and meanings and balls of illusion beyond even what the writer has put into it. I’m thinking of Bob Dylan and William Burroughs, among many others. And I wonder what you think about this, how much the idea of a kind of mythic Midwest—not Broadway and not cowboys and not Hollywood—informs your work, or is a bed for it, or a character in it?
—Donald Warfield, Fairfield, Connecticut
I’m actually having a little difficulty getting my mind around this question because I’m not entirely sure what the myth of the Midwest is. This is one of those questions where I’m going to start by guessing and trying to pull some things together. In addition to your mention of Dylan and Burroughs, I’ll add some names I remembered or found hunting on the Internet: Gwendolyn Brooks, Kate Chopin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jonathan Franzen, Ernest Hemingway, William Inge, Sinclair Lewis, Calvin Trillin, Garrison Keillor, Langston Hughes, Scott Turow, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thornton Wilder.
That’s a real mix. Different personalities. Different kinds of writing. Different ways in which place might inform work or be embedded in it or even resisted. Since the leaves have fallen and I can just see the brownstone where Fitzgerald was born from my study window, I want to start with the end of The Great Gatsby when Nick Carraway, borrowing from Fitzgerald’s own life, is talking about returning from school in the East for Christmas and the train West leaving Chicago on the last leg:
“When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim light of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.
“That’s my Middle West—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frost dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”
It’s tempting just to stop with that. That’s the wonderful, evocative Fitzgerald spreading his own romantic gloss over something that, of course, is harder in the end than he suggests. But I want to pull out a few threads: the “real” snow, the sudden “sharp, wild brace” of the air, the sense of identity with the place, the “long winters,” the deficiency someone from the Midwest feels in the face of the East, though with the suggestion it comes from the complacency drawn from the security of that particular home.
There are themes here that I think most people from the Midwest—certainly the upper Midwest—can identify with, and I even have those trains from my youth, though from a later period than Fitzgerald rode them. My older brother went West to Nebraska for school, and he, in fact, did travel on trains, to and fro, with other students, leaving from St. Paul’s Union station and returning there. As an observer seeing him off or meeting him when he came home, it seemed festive to me. I, on the other hand, went East, and there were sometimes four train rides—the one to St. Paul if my father didn’t drive me, then on to Chicago, another train to New York, and finally the Long Island Railroad and its nineteenth century version of travel to Rhode Island. As far as I could tell, there were no other students sharing those journeys on either the eastward trek or back home (by then, most people flew), and I remember the rides as deeply long and very lonely and very much about the transit from one world to another, neither of which quite fit me. You perhaps recognize the feeling as a transplanted Midwesterner—the sense that the worldly East could not quite be penetrated and yet a certain pride in something solid and grounding about the Midwest, even if it was a thing chafed against. Perhaps even a pride in the hard winters and an awareness that the Midwest, that fluid idea, leads with its open spaces into the wildness of the West.
Like Fitzgerald, and like Nick Carraway, I’ve never shed that sense of a Midwestern self. Though I lived in both East and West for short times, I’ve spent most of my life in the Midwest, and I realize that’s who I am, whatever the “that” is. I think each part of the country is insular in its own way. I made this rather Jamesian corollary for myself last night while I was thinking about this question: the Midwest is to the East as the East is to Europe. The farther east a person goes, the more focused and assured the native populace seems; the farther west, the less sophisticated, even innocent. It’s a corollary that has the feel of both caricature and cliché, and yet I think we do carry these preconceptions about all sorts of things in life, and they do shape our outlooks and reactions in various ways.
I also jotted down a string of words the Midwest might bring to mind: Mississippi, lakes, unsophisticated, homey, straitened, dark, dull, salt of the earth, a place to leave. They are largely removed from the more romantic Fitzgerald view and many of them suggest a line to the turbulence that underlies the work of some of the writers from that Midwestern list. I haven’t read Sinclair Lewis, but I know his work is a more direct portrait of Midwestern provincialism—the idea that everyone is required to be the same in these Midwestern towns and that any move out of that banal lock-step will be punished. Certainly Hemingway wanted to escape the Oak Park, Illinois of his youth, but the Nick Adams stories with their woods and lakes draw on the Midwestern world of the camp—that natural retreat from the city. Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks would have found themselves written out of a large part of the native Midwestern culture, with the writerly repercussions that meant, Brooks becoming a poet of the inner city in Chicago and Hughes in Harlem.
Of some of the other writers, though Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s famous play, is set in New Hampshire, its shade of darkness might place it in any small town of the era, including the Wisconsin of Wilder’s birth. It’s not nearly as dark as the world of Wisconsin Death Trip, which is Michael Lesy’s startling compilation of the 1890-1910 Black River Falls photography of Charles Van Schaik and contemporary newspaper clippings. Like the work of Minnesota writer Duke Klassen, it reveals a harsh world of violence and insanity and other bad things. It’s an easier trip looking at Mark Twain with his humorist’s eye and his depiction of the great river pulsing through the heart of the country, and then the lighter fare of a Calvin Trillin poking into the backwaters of the Midwest or Kurt Vonnegut’s comic energy. We are really all over the lot if you think of what the Midwest offers a writer as both material and sensibility. In just this sampling, there’s a lot more than the flat characters of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone.
So where does that leave me and what I’ve written? I will admit to a Midwestern signature. There’s definitely a part of me that writes out of the experience of feeling I’m part of this most middle class part of the country. I also recognize the conflicts that represents—the region’s traditional cultural aspirations and support for good education and good citizenry facing off against something wilder and more rebellious, which may have been the sort of thing that was touched in me after a summer in Europe, much of it in England, when I got back to my house and all the land outside the back door and thought, thank God. I don’t have to queue anymore. As Fitzgerald suggests, there is something here in this part of the country, which that famous New Yorker cartoon scrunched in between Philadelphia and California, that actually is the start of the West.
Of my work, I would say In the Land of the Dinosaur is the most aggressively Midwestern because of its strong geographical place but also due to its depiction of a community with both strong bonds and narrow strictures. There’s also very little awareness of the outside world except as something that is threateningly other. In the world of these stories, even town and certainly city can seem dangerous and a menace to some kind of code. Suite Harmonic, with its Indiana setting and its troops in Grant’s Western army, also clearly belongs to the Midwest, despite its closeness to the South. For the town’s “upper class” particularly, there is an aspirational nature, the sense of the East and Europe as the places to go to be “finished.” And there is a flip side, the continental explorations originating in New Harmony that were the precursor of the U.S. Geological Survey.
A certain restlessness and curiosity exists in that New Harmony that is a Midwestern hallmark for many and it’s something that comes through in John Given’s letters when he writes this in March of 1864, “I do not care where they send me so that I have not to traverse some old path for I would like to see as much as possible of the country in the next four months.” While John’s wanderlust likely precedes his time in the Midwest since he emigrated from Ireland, there is this, too, from his letters: “Perhaps you may say that I am partial, but you will excuse me when I tell you that I firmly believe that two thousand western troops would make a more formidable army than three thousand eastern soldiers. And if we are to believe the rebels they would rather fight a thousand eastern Yankees than a hundred western ones.” It’s regional pride with its subtext that the East may be more polished but the Midwest/West is somehow better at mixing it up.
Except for Time Stamp, which basically goes all over the world, my other books also have largely Midwestern settings, though they flit around a bit, going to Odessa and London, New York and Arizona and, in the case of The Second Magician’s Tale, all over the country. I don’t think this stretches as far as the Midwest being a character in my work, although I don’t really know. In considering all this, I’ve realized there are at least subtle differences in my characters who don’t come from the Midwest. I suspect Maddie in Time Stamp, who grew up on the East coast, is far more at home in either London or Thailand than she’d be in Milwaukee. Victoria in “the Fields of Flanders” is a London girl who associates the time her father spent in Chicago with gangsterism. And while Clare in Clare, Loving is born in Delaware, she spends most of her school years and her work life in the Midwest. To me, she feels very Midwestern. She works in a big city—Chicago—but it would be hard to mistake her for a New Yorker. It’s not easy to say just what the difference is, but it may be a lack of certainty or a casualness or perhaps even the core of propriety at the heart of her stubbornly independent life. I really don’t know just what the Midwestern thing is. I do think the people who stay here, fictional characters or not, are comfortable with that sense of being in the middle, not of being hemmed in physically but of being buffered. In the end, even if there is a feel for wildness here, it’s just not very edgy. If you’re William Burroughs, you probably leave.