The American Midwestern Identity in Literature Analysis

Farm Life

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The family farm has been the dominant cultural enterprise in the Midwest until the later decades of the twentieth century, when large agribusiness corporations turned farming from a social foundation into a cog in the corporate machine. This dramatic change, driven by economics and technology, is not remarkable in the history of midwestern farming. Change has been the one consistent fact of farm life in the Midwest.

Farm fiction began with Hamlin Garland’s Main-Travelled Roads (1891). Garland wanted to tell the truth about farming, and to Garland that truth meant avoiding the romanticized vision of farming as a happy pastoral existence lived in harmony with nature. Opposite Garland are perhaps two of the most beautiful novels ever written about farming, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918). In both, Cather depicts strong female protagonists who struggle with the Nebraska prairie sod until it gives in to their will and produces food. Cather’s ability to capture the beauty of life on the prairie and its extraordinary effects on her characters is rivaled by few. Herbert Quick’s Vandemark’s Folly (1922), while suffering from a melodramatic plot, compares with Cather’s work in its ability to describe the native Iowa prairie in several inspiring passages. In Cather’s and Quick’s novels a key theme is the immigrant experience, and this is also true in Ole Rölvaag’s Giants in the Earth (1924-1925), which is considered by some to be the best farm novel ever written. Rölvaag’s central couple, Per and Beret Hansa, find that the founding of a farm in America is as much a question of learning to farm as it is learning to become or not to become like other Americans. Per and Beret...

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Small-town Life

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Along with farm life, an essential part of the midwestern cultural identity is found in the small town. The myths about farms are rivaled by those about small towns. The small town was to be the ideal democratic community—safe, decent, and educated—which would serve the farmers with goods, services, and culture. It is no surprise then, that the success of the novels of the small town lay in their ability to expose these false assumptions. It is telling that the first American to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature was Sinclair Lewis, who made a stronger case against the small town than nearly any other writer.

Edgar Watson Howe’s The Story of a Country Town (1883) is the first significant novel to attack the sentimental portraits of small towns. Life in Howe’s town, Twin Mounds, is characterized by monotonous trivial activities that are made bearable only by mean gossip. Creativity and happiness are stifled by a constricting puritanical code that Howe felt to be the central damaging force in midwestern life. The poetry of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915) was very similar to Howe’s fiction. Masters’ 242 residents of Spoon River speak from their graves of loneliness, isolation, and spiritual longing. Although many of Zona Gale’s eighty-three stories celebrate life in the small town, and although her Friendship Village is the locale of many happy and loving folks, she eventually turned more toward a...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In the later decades of the twentieth century the genre of personal nonfiction has blossomed in midwestern letters, and, as in the literary works, the most characteristic of these nonfictional accounts describe the relationships between people and the land. Curtis Harnack’s We Have All Gone Away (1973) and Douglas Bauer’s Prairie City, Iowa (1979) are stories about childhoods spent on the farm and the impact of such a background on adult life. Unlike most writers of such stories, Harnack and Bauer manage to avoid the typical sentimentalized nostalgia associated with describing a childhood growing up on the farm. Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Making Hay (1986) takes the single farm practice of raising alfalfa and describes the roles of three communities in the production of this crop. Linda Hasselstrom’s Windbreak (1987) is the journal of a year in the life of a South Dakota rancher. Her keen observations of the competing responsibilities of raising cattle and writing cut to the heart of the midwestern character. Finally, William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth (a deep map) (1991) attempts to understand a place first by looking with exhaustive detail at the landscape and history, and then by seeing more deeply into the spiritual aspects of place.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Crow, Charles L., ed. A Companion to the Regional Literatures of America. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003. This volume appraises regional literature in America from New England to the Pacific Northwest. The accomplishments and careers of regionalist geniuses such as Willa Cather, Bret Harte, and Mark Twain are also surveyed in this volume.

Martone, Michael, ed. A Place of Sense: Essays in Search of the Midwest. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988. Eight essays that attempt to define the Midwest in all its contradictions. Includes photographs by David Plowden.

Nemanic, Gerald, ed. A Bibliographical Guide to Midwestern Literature. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1981. Provides dozens of subject bibliographies and more than one hundred author introductions and bibliographies.

Shortridge, James R. The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989. Investigates the subjective aspects of place, including the contradictory images, the origins of the name, and the Middle West as metaphor.

Stryk, Lucien, ed. Heartland: Poets of the Midwest. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1967. An anthology of some thirty contemporary midwestern poets linked by themes common to the region’s writing.

Stryk, Lucien, ed. Heartland II: Poets of the Midwest. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1975. A second volume containing more than twice the number of contributors.

Vinz, Mark, and Thom Tammaro, eds. Imagining Home: Writing from the Midwest. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995. A collection of essays by upper midwestern writers that attempt to describe the influence of place on their work.

Vinz, Mark, and Thom Tammaro, eds. Inheriting the Land: Contemporary Voices from the Midwest. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. An anthology of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction organized around characteristic themes of midwestern life: climate, the presence of the past, town and country, and gains and losses.

Weber, Ronald. The Midwestern Ascendancy in American Writing. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992. Describes the achievement of midwestern literature from the late nineteenth century into the 1920’s.