Easy Chair — From the December 2017 issue

On the Corner of Myth and Main

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There was a time when I didn’t know that I lived in Middle America. When I was very young, growing up in eastern Minnesota, I thought I was just an American — how sweet — and that I existed at the center of everything, not in some sort of gap between two more important places. I also didn’t know my class, which was “middle” as well. “Upper” was barely present in my town, and “lower” was simply “poor” — it was a condition, not a category. Poverty was visible everywhere: the farmhouses without plumbing, the old men in old coats trudging along the highways, the kid on my school bus who wore socks as mittens.

My sense of myself as a middle-class Middle American developed only once I moved “out East” to study at Princeton. There, I met one other student from Minnesota, one from North Dakota, and several kids from Ohio and Illinois. This made sense; my native region was simply less populous than the coasts, and didn’t boast as many elite prep schools. What surprised me, though, was being treated as a sort of exotic by my peers. Many seemed not to know where Minnesota was or how it was different from Montana. Or Nebraska. Or the yellow blur of states covered in corn and wheat. Remarkably, these ignoramuses seemed proud of their confusion with regard to basic facts of the atlas. When I tried to educate them, they tuned out. When they tried to educate me, however, on the difference between “the Vineyard” and “the Cape,” it was presumed that such information mattered. And I agreed. By the time I graduated I’d internalized the mental map of America I found there — the one with the indistinct, boring, bland, soft center.

Years later, after work brought me back to the Corn Belt, I began to question that view. Now I know that Middle America doesn’t exist — as a region or a culture or a meaningful intellectual construct. There is no such thing as the heartland. Flyover country — that vast negative space with the negative name — is an illusion you’ll never locate no matter how long and how hard you search for it.

It was a novelist from Montana, Thomas McGuane, who popularized the phrase “flyover country,” in an article for Esquire in 1980. He was trying to capture the condescension he’d sensed among Hollywood types who “seemed to acknowledge only two places, New York and Los Angeles.” I’ve worked with similar people, and they truly, deeply believe in Middle America. It’s the mythical place they blame for problems they’d like to believe they had no hand in creating, such as the elevation to the presidency of a New Yorker made famous by reality TV — a man whose rival grew up in Illinois and served as the first lady of Arkansas.

Among those who cherish the fantasy of Middle America is Michael Tomasky, a political columnist from West Virginia who wrote an essay for The New Republic in May titled “Elitism Is Liberalism’s Biggest Problem.” Middle America — an “extremely large” place that “encompasses most of the country” — is, he acknowledges, home to “plenty of non-deplorables.” I would like to draw your attention to that term, which is like using “the non-depressed” for happy people. This is Tomasky’s way of signaling that the exceptional souls he describes aren’t quite to be trusted, perhaps because their zip codes suggest that they don’t mind living among bigots. What convinces me of this coded message is Tomasky’s insistence that he could never bear such company. “I would never consider living anywhere other than a major city,” he notes, “or at the very least a liberal university town, where the odds are slim that I would end up next door to an actual racist.”

Tomasky’s faith in the tolerance of urbanites and the non-racism of university towns is astounding. (One has only to mention busing in Boston or the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.) Nevertheless, he goes on to advise his fellow partisans that they

need to recognize a fundamental truth: All of these people in middle America, even the actual liberals, have very different sensibilities than elite liberals who live on the coasts. First of all, middle Americans go to church. Not temple. Church. God and Jesus Christ play important roles in their lives.

The ethnographic detachment of these statements is truly something to behold, as though Tomasky is speaking to his readers behind the backs of the poor natives, who lack the vocabulary to interpret his transmissions.

I could go on. Tomasky’s essay is the most egregious example I have seen of coastal condescension, but he is far from its only practitioner. For decades, self-described liberal elites have used “Middle America” as shorthand for a baseline condition they are proud to have risen above. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Middle American imaginary is that it was invented — or perfected, at least — by Midwesterners themselves.

About ten years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Minnesota with my mother, a Middle American who read the Bible daily — not, as Tomasky might suspect, so she could know the literal word of God but so she could write acerbic, blasphemous comments in the margins. (Her literary hero was Mark Twain.) One evening, I needed a break from my family and went to the Mall of America for supper. I realize that this choice makes me suspicious to those who are profoundly conflicted about sprawling mega-malls with unabashedly patriotic names. I understand such qualms. I sometimes share them. But I was hungry, and biology trumped ideology that night.

As I chatted with the young woman who served my burger, I found out that she hailed from Sauk Centre, Minnesota. If you majored in English, you know the town. Sinclair Lewis, America’s first Nobel laureate in literature, was born in Sauk Centre, which he transformed into Gopher Prairie for Main Street, his first great novel. Main Street was a bestseller when it was published in 1920, but its influence can’t be measured in mere numbers, since it also gave us one of the earliest depictions of Middle America.

Gopher Prairie, in Lewis’s telling, is a suffocating, benighted little town full of dumb hicks and pious busybodies — bigoted and backward and utterly self-satisfied. When the book’s liberal, do-gooding heroine, Carole Kennicott, tries to construct a refined life for herself there, the puffed-up yokels drive her out. In light of this portrayal, many locals came to regard Lewis as an ingrate. My server’s grandparents had known Lewis, she told me, so naturally I asked if they, too, disliked him. No, she told me, they’d liked Old Red just fine. (Lewis was nicknamed Red for the color of his hair.)

Lewis’s bleak vision of small-town life was reprised nine years later in Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, a sociological treatise by Robert and Helen Lynd. Like Lewis, the couple were Midwesterners who had moved away and settled among the coastal elite. Robert went to Princeton and taught at Columbia. Helen went to Wellesley and Columbia and taught at Sarah Lawrence. But the work that made them famous centered on Muncie, Indiana, a medium-size city that they believed would yield insights about the country at large. The Lynds were interested in the majority experience, so they left Muncie’s black population (which, at 6 percent, was proportionally larger than New York’s at the time) out of the book.

Muncie, they concluded, was socially stagnant, culturally superficial, and economically divided. The business leaders were Republicans and the working class had little hope of improving their prospects. Residents prized education, or said they did, but the town didn’t pay its teachers all that well. Teenagers, now that cars had made them mobile, were increasingly rebellious. Married women tended to stay at home, and couples were expected to have kids out of moral duty. There was rampant anxiety among the older folks about the baleful influence of popular culture. Such findings may sound unremarkable today, but to a contemporary reader they told a story of decline — agricultural America was starting to lose its bearings to consumerism.

In 1935, during the Depression, the Lynds visited Muncie again, for Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts, and found that nothing much had changed in the city where nothing much had happened in the first place. This seems to alarm them; their commentary strikes a frankly ominous note, warning that Muncie’s narrow-mindedness might aid the rise of future demagogues. If “the right strong man” could emerge in “a country as geographically diffuse as the United States,” they write, “one wonders if Middletown’s response from both the business class and working class will not be positive and favorable.”

 

 

Middletown has had a long and somewhat unexpected afterlife. In 1947, Hollywood made a major motion picture inspired by the study, proving that it could make a movie about anything. In Magic Town, Jimmy Stewart plays Lawrence Smith, a small-time operator in the rising industry of opinion polling who is struggling to compete with the big firm, a Gallup-like outfit with national reach. Then he hears about a “mathematical miracle” — a place called Grandview that is a microcosm of America. He rushes there and meets a woman named Mary Peterman (Jane Wyman), who wants to elevate the town by building a civic center. Smith opposes her plan because “progress” might ruin Grandview as a specimen for his polling. He prevails, for a time, because Grandview, like Gopher Prairie, thinks it’s perfect as is. (At least the white men in charge think so; as in Middletown, black people are kept offstage.) Later, word gets out about the town’s impeccable representativeness, the press floods in, and the people become conceited about their oracular abilities. They start polling themselves and selling the results. It all falls apart when they ask themselves if they would vote for a woman as president and 79 percent say yes. The national press mocks this idea as absurd and abandons Grandview, which crashes economically. Finally Smith and Peterman join forces to build the civic center, inspired by support from cheering local teens who defy their dour, cheapskate fathers on the issue.

This altogether peculiar film flips Main Street and Middletown on their heads. It posits a heroic streak hidden in Middle America’s cold, dead soul. It was written by Robert Riskin, the great left-wing screenwriter, and celebrates the can-do spirit of simple people banding together for the good of all. Not only does Grandview redeem itself, but it also taps into the latent inner greatness that, as its original audiences surely understood, allowed America to beat the Nazis.

Magic Town is unusual in positioning Middle America not as a culturally gerrymandered dead zone but as a homeland worth defending. Riskin seeks to convince his audience that we’re good at heart — to assure us that we have a core, a solid foundation, a center that will hold. This was crucial after the Second World War, this idea of community and destiny and wanting the same washer-dryer as your neighbors. In times of crisis, it was helpful for everyone, even Hollywood producers, to see themselves as part of Middle America — to find there a deep reserve of moral strength and a sense of national unity.

Now that collective identity has been hollowed out. Industry and politics have discovered niche marketing, data mining, and targeted demographic appeals. For the “elites” Tomasky addresses, life is curated, artisanal. Lumpen Middle America is a foil for everything they’ve transcended, or think they have. It remains only as a place to put the barbarians who keep screwing up the nobility’s best-laid plans. As for Middle Americans themselves, I’d wager that few of them feel typical these days. Being defined by made-up notions of normalcy is hard for people who feel different inside — and that is, in my experience, almost all of us.

It’s time we junked the whole idea, much as we did our old concept of the Third World, another imagined purgatory supposedly in need of uplift, at gunpoint if necessary. In the words of Bob Dylan, the latest child of Minnesota to win the Nobel Prize in literature: “My father probably thought the capital of the world was wherever he was at the time. It couldn’t be anywhere else.” And, given the son he raised, he was right. Wherever you are in America, you’re in the middle of it.

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