By Phil Christman
The Midwest is a deeply mysterious place to the coastal essayists, pundits, and politicians. Rarely visiting, save to write clunky closed factory and “Whither Main Street?” laments; engage in political diner chitchat with local proles; or pursue nebulosities like “Midwest(ern) nice”, the “heartland” abides as an eternally bland terra incognita; a mundane Brigadoon appearing just once every election year.
In his new book, Midwest Futures, Phil Christman grapples with these and other perceptions of the region, and what’s to become of it. Throughout, and with only an occasional wobbly argument, Christman offers a clear and detailed vision of the states (and state) of the Midwest. Certainly a more educated and thorough one than it receives from the larger media outlets.
For starters, he points out the fuzziness and absurdity of the term Midwest. How far west can you go before reaching the middle? Also, what states are geographically and culturally true “midwestern” ones? Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska most often make the cut, but Christman makes—perhaps a bit fastidiously—a case for the Dakotas, Oklahoma, parts of Pennsylvania, and others. Ultimately he defines Midwest as an “antiquated nickname,” a result of Manifest Destiny mania and East Coast chauvinism. But that supports Christman’s point as well: underscoring the long-time, erroneous view of the Midwest as the great middle. Not just the center of the nation, but a lukewarm, homogenized bowl of white conservative values soup. Nonsense, says Christman, who dissects it all with a strong sense of history, geography, and economics. As a native midwesterner too (by way of Michigan), he has better footing in the subject, and greater confidence in the Midwest’s worthiness as a subject than possessed by many of its chroniclers.
As for those chroniclers, he nicely lacerates lazy takes in Rust Belt reportage, cranked out by outsiders or former residents who returned to offer lame to bad Springsteenian takes on their hometowns, while de-emphasizing or outright ignoring the less-than-exciting aspects of economics. Discussing what has become a literary genre in itself—“the death of the Midwestern manufacturing base”—Christman takes to task all those stories wherein the reporter puts on the opposite of rose-colored glasses (grey-tinted contacts, maybe) to grimly assay all-American towns and shuttered widget factories. He also takes up the slack in covering the tendency of Midwesterners to consider their home turf a land of lameness. Christman addresses several familiar clichéd claims, hammering at the pose of geographically induced dullness, or as he puts it “the truly bizarre self-alienation that I encounter among so many straight, white Midwesterners I meet—a strong conviction that their own experiences are too banal for examination or even, sometimes, description. Or there’s the self-contempt that imitates, but prevents, genuine self-scrutiny and self-criticism.” Sometimes a broad brush paints perfectly.
Christman is less successful with fictional portrayals of the region. Chapter four mulls literary, television, and cinematic portrayals of the Midwest, but resorts to mere lists of titles and brief synopses. As a horror buff I was interested in what he had to say about that genre’s treatment of middle America. He mentions the Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, with their fictional settings of Haddonfield, Ill., and Springwood, Ohio, respectively, but these are barely explored (incidentally, Nightmare director Wes Craven was an Ohioan).** Frustrating, because he sets off on an odd—and not in the Lynchian sense—tangent with a discussion of Blue Velvet as a standard-bearer of the “nice little town rife with seedy secrets” trope. Odd in that, as he admits, the movie is set in North Carolina, not Iowa as he originally believed (though he notes director Lynch pondered setting Jeffrey Beaumont’s severed ear-driven adventures in North Dakota). But that’s neither here nor there, and a strange abandonment of Midwest Futures’ subject matter for a more respectable auteur.
I glean that Christman—who does provide an impeccable list of Midwest authors and fiction to peruse—is more nonfiction-focused. Too bad. The chapter ends with a short, hilarious, and sulkily veiled swipe at Lena Dunham’s Girls for perpetuating the trope of the midwesterner who believes nothing has ever happened to her, moving from East Lansing, Mich., to the big city to become a writer (pretentious italics intentional). Dunham’s character “…so disbelieved that anything story-worthy had ever happened in her life that she exploited the experiences of others.” New York-born, Dunham kinda sorta squeaks by as a midwestern voice as an Oberlin grad, but that’s okay. His curb stomp of her portrayal of a irritating midwestern journalist émigré is exquisite.
As for the Midwest’s future (the titular plural futures is intriguing), in Christman’s approximation, it’s bleak, and mostly about climate change and the inevitable strain it will place on the region. Funnily enough, he suggests an inevitable exodus to the Midwest by all those grey-visioned coastal critics. Christman is, thankfully, not a Single-Theory-to-Explain-Everything Maniac. He has several theories, in fact, delivered in a non-maniacal manner. Most are wise, some sincere but tenuous. He tenaciously latches onto one issue in particular: cars.
Christman does not like cars. At the very beginning of the book he notes the presence of a landmark near East Liverpool, Ohio, marking where the US Public Land Survey began (or rather, thereabouts; the actual point is a thousand feet or so away, and now underwater).* He briefly ponders visiting the site in person, like his WPA literary forbears, but decides against it, considering the carbon footprint left by the four-hour drive. An admirable if incurious pose, and just one mention in the book of how automobiles ruin everything.
It’s unclear what future Christman himself prefers for the Midwest. I sense his ultimate vision for the region might be an immobile agrarian fantasy, where the topsoil is left alone, the fresh water and aquifers unsullied, and so forth. Which would be a helluva trick. But unlike the several 19th century preachers and cult leaders he describes in the book, Christman promises no Utopia. As he underlines throughout, it’s the westward search for Utopia that got us in this mess. Likewise, he rightfully mocks prepper mentalities, using himself as an humorous, disincentivizing example, describing the run for the hills mania afflicting him Election Night 2016. Modern progressivism—at least as practiced by online firebrands—seems based on the idea that doomsday is both unavoidable and preventable. A less than inspiring battle cry. Christman sometimes seems headed down this path—one page after another provides a litany of political and ecological horrors (and cars). But in an almost refreshing change of pace, Christman admits there are no ready-made quick fixes, but gradual change enacted by large groups of conscientious people is always possible. So, what the hell? Give it a try. “I not only don’t have a one-size-fits-all solution to that problem; I’d worry about anyone who thought they did,” he admits “Solutions, if any, will emerge from the ground-up, from the work of thoughtful and responsible and kind people working together.” No promises, but staving off apocalypse is for damn sure a group activity.
Christman excels at pointing out the doublethink powering American endeavors and slathering deodorant on its collective soul. A sampling of a few well-crafted phrases:
• “We are encouraged to see democracy as something that can only live in a symbiotic relationship with authoritarianism.”
• “If American history proves anything, it is that a core of committed racists will always beat a large crowd of noncommittal non-racists.”
• “Egalitarianism is a process, not an achievement. When it becomes something for a region to pride itself upon, it is probably lost.”
• “To be ‘humiliated,’ of course, is good. It is a profoundly democratic exercise to remember that you are humus, the organic part of the soil; that you are temporarily excited ground.”
A small book may not be the best way to present large ideas. But Christman has plenty of small to medium ideas here that go a long way.
Midwest Futures is available for order on the Belt Publishing site and at most local bookstores.
* This inspired the book’s conceit of emulating the original surveying of the Midwest into six-by-six square mile grids through presenting chapters as six rows containing six “plats”, or essays, approximately 1,000 words long. Which veers on the too-too, but does provide an adorably compact little text.
** Perhaps someone else could tackle the subject of Midwest horror in another book. A Midwest writer who’s a horror buff, say. Publishers?