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The dismissive assessment of the Midwest by Coastal Elites may have its literary roots in the works of Minnesotans Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Or maybe not.
In 1920, Minnesota writers stood at the pinnacle of the literary world. In March, St. Paul’s F. Scott Fitzgerald published his debut novel This Side of Paradise. The Chicago Tribune said it “bears the impress, it seems to me, of genius.” In October, Sinclair Lewis, born and raised in Sauk Center, published Main Street, which contributed significantly to his becoming the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930. Both writers were popular sensations.
Such adulation then was not unusual for Midwestern writers. During the first years of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1918 to 1929, eight of the 11 winners were Midwesterners—one, Booth Tarkington, won twice. Indeed, Midwesterners led American life in a number of fields. In politics, Midwesterners won the presidency six of seven times after 1860. Economically, the Midwest’s share of manufacturing employment rose from 13 percent in 1860 to 30 percent in 1947. The publication of This Side of Paradise and Main Street represented a peak of the Midwest’s cultural influence in America.
The ‘revolt from the village’
But peaks are followed by troughs. Today, cultural elites frequently dismiss the Midwest as “flyover country.” Far from the position of cultural leadership it occupied a century ago, they see it as a reactionary backwater. This is a key ingredient in the bitter division between “Red” and “Blue” America.
How did this happen? Historian Jon K. Lauck outlines one popular explanation that argues that writers like Fitzgerald and Lewis played a significant role in the decline of the Midwest in the American imagination.
Lauck’s excellent book, From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920-1965, begins with an essay written in 1921 by Carl Van Doren, a Columbia University English professor. Van Doren argued that for half a century American literature had been “faithful to the cult of the village.” The “essential goodness and heroism” of the village had been “sacred.” It was a doctrine whose pillars included, in Lauck’s words, “an appreciation of little white churches, corner groceries, decent and wise ministers, faithful local doctors, diligent farmers, and picturesque country scenes.” Now, though, Van Doren—who grew up on an Illinois farm—discerned an emerging attitude in American literature, evident in the pages of This Side of Paradise and Main Street. This attitude revealed the supposed realities of the “slack and shabby” village, exposing its closeted skeletons, secrets, sexual escapades, degeneracy, “grotesque forms,” “subterfuges,” “pathos,” “filth,” “illusions,” “demoralization,” “rot,” “complacency,” “stupidity,” and “pitiless decorum which veils its faults” and conceals an “abundant feast of scandal”— quite an indictment. These books, Van Doren argued, represented a “revolt from the village” in which Midwestern authors broke from the “patterns” and “traditions which once might have governed them.” Thus freed, they would, while “laughing,” pursue “their wild desires” among “the ruins of the old.”
This “revolt from the village” interpretation quickly became conventional wisdom. Historian Richard Hofstadter wrote that these novels showed “the mean, stunted, starved lives, the sour little crabapple culture of the American small town, with its inhibitions and its tyrannies.” A growing class of coastal urban elites used Main Street and This Side of Paradise to denigrate Midwestern culture. But is this interpretation justified?
Lewis and Sauk Center
The case is much stronger for Main Street. Its protagonist, Carol Kennicott, is a “progressive” graduate from the Twin Cities who marries a doctor, moves to the small town of Gopher Prairie—Sauk Center, in effect—and is duly suffocated by the place.
Carol’s first look around Gopher Prairie is grim. When she “had walked for thirty-two minutes she had completely covered the town, east and west, north and south; and she stood at the corner of Main Street and Washington Avenue and despaired.” One walk along Main Street and Carol is “within ten minutes beholding not only the heart of a place called Gopher Prairie, but ten thousand towns from Albany to San Diego”—a sentence from which the concept of “flyover country” might originate.
Main Street presents many inhabitants of Gopher Prairie as intolerable snobs and busybodies, but they are only symptoms of a problem that is, to borrow modern terminology, “structural” or “institutional.”
And why, she began to ask, did she rage at individuals? Not individuals but institutions are the enemies, and they most afflict the disciples who the most generously serve them. They insinuate their tyranny under a hundred guises and pompous names, such as Polite Society, the Family, the Church, Sound Business, the Party, the Country, the Superior White Race; and the only defense against them, Carol beheld, is unembittered laughter.
But this isn’t Carol’s only view of Gopher Prairie. A few pages on:
Her active hatred of Gopher Prairie had run out. She saw it now as a toiling new settlement. With sympathy, she remembered [Doc] Kennicott’s defense of its citizens as “a lot of pretty good folks, working hard and trying to bring up their families the best they can.” She recalled tenderly the young awkwardness of Main Street and the makeshifts of the little brown cottages; she pitied their shabbiness and isolation; had compassion for their assertion of culture…for their pretense of greatness, even as trumpeted in “boosting.” She saw Main Street in the dusty prairie sunset, a line of frontier shanties with solemn lonely people waiting for her, solemn and lonely as an old man who has outlived his friends. She remembered that Kennicott and Sam Clark had listened to her songs, and she wanted to run to them and sing.
“At last,” she rejoiced, “I’ve come to a fairer attitude toward the town. I can love it now.”
She was, perhaps, rather proud of herself for having acquired so much tolerance.
This last, acid comment suggests that Lewis does not offer Carol as an observer uncritically. We are told that “though she was Minnesota born, Carol was not an intimate of the prairie villages,” growing up first in Mankato— “which is not a prairie town, but in its garden-sheltered streets and aisles of elms is white and green New England reborn”—and later in Minneapolis. At college she studies sociology and reads “a book on village-improvement— tree-planting, town pageants, girls’ clubs.” Thus inspired, she decides, “That’s what I’ll do after college! I’ll get my hands on one of these prairie towns and make it beautiful.”
Bully for the folks of Gopher Prairie. Not for the last time they would be putty in the hands of a “pointy headed” planner who knew them only from textbooks. Carol is as ignorant a busybody as any of the town’s natives. Today, she would work for a Twin Cities-based NGO that lobbies the Department of Natural Resources to regulate rural life more stringently.
While Lewis’s sympathies clearly lie with Carol, he often offers competing views of Gopher Prairie and its inhabitants. “The people—they’d be as drab as their houses, as flat as their fields. She couldn’t stay here. She would have to wrench loose from this man, and flee.” This is Carol’s opinion on the train going to Gopher Prairie, before she has even set foot in it. By contrast, when Swedish farm girl Bea Sorensen arrives the same day, she meditates that:
…it didn’t hardly seem like it was possible there could be so many folks all in one place at the same time. My! It would take years to get acquainted with them all. And swell people, too! A fine big gentleman in a new pink shirt with a diamond, and not no washed-out blue denim working shirt. A lovely lady in a longer dress (but it must be an awful hard dress to wash). And the stores!
Not just three of them, like there were at Scandia Crossing, but more than four whole blocks!
Lewis’s real attitudes toward Gopher Prairie defy easy categorization. He was, in Sally E. Parry’s words, “a dreamer in a practical land” and longed to leave Sauk Center. Aged 13, he walked out of town to enlist as a drummer boy in the Spanish-American War, but his irate father dragged him back. In his earliest published story with a Minnesota setting, “A Theory of Values” from 1906, the young protagonist writes: “I want to do something in and for the world; not rot away in this dull, little town, and die unheard of.”
But Lewis explicitly rejected Van Doren’s interpretation of Main Street. It was, he said, “unsound, one of those theories put forth by critics who thereafter tend to look away from any evidence to the contrary.” Later in life, he said of his youth in Sauk Center: “It was a good time, a good place, and a good preparation for life.” His literary universe was forever dominated by the Midwest, and Minnesota specifically. In part, this was because Lewis was savvy enough to give his audience what they wanted. But he also saw the state as a microcosm of America. In a 1923 essay for The Nation titled, “Minnesota, the Norse State” he wrote:
To understand America, it is merely necessary to understand Minnesota. But to understand Minnesota you must be an historian, an ethnologist, a poet, a cynic, and graduate prophet all in one.
Fitzgerald and the Twin Cities
By contrast, it is hard to see how This Side of Paradise is part of a “revolt from the village” at all. For one, its protagonist Amory Blaine—a thinly veiled and admirably unattractive self-portrait—doesn’t come from a village but, after extensive foreign travels, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and Minneapolis, the 18th most populous city in America in 1920. Second, he seems rather fond of the place:
“Tell me about you Amory. Did you have two horrible years [in Minneapolis]?”
Amory considered lying, and then decided against it.
“No, Beatrice, I enjoyed them. I adapted myself to the bourgeoisie. I became conventional.”
Later, a suitor introduces him to a rival, a limp fellow named Gillespie.
Gillespie: I’ve met Mr. Blaine. From Lake Geneva, aren’t you?
Gillespie: (Desperately) I’ve been there. It’s in the-the Middle West, isn’t it?
Amory: (Spicily) Approximately. But I always felt that I’d rather be provincial hot-tamale than soup without seasoning.
Amory: Oh, no offense.
Fitzgerald wasn’t always so complimentary. In 1934, he wrote to a friend: “I no longer regard St. Paul as my home, any more than the Eastern seaboard or the Riviera.” He meant “no disloyalty,” but:
…my father was an Easterner and I went East to college and I never did quite adjust myself to those damn Minnesota winters. It was always freezing my cheeks, being a rotten skater, etc.—though many events there will always fill me with a tremendous nostalgia.
Even so, as Patricia Hampl notes, “there are no Fitzgerald ‘Baltimore stories,’ no rhapsodic evocations of Maryland in his fiction, as St. Paul is rhapsodized and returned to again and again.” And it isn’t just the “street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow” of St. Paul that Fitzgerald rhapsodized. In his most famous work, 1925’s The Great Gatsby, Minnesotan Nick Carraway returns from World War One “restless. Instead of being the warm center of the world the middle-west now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe—so I decided to go east and learn the bond business.” There, he seeks to rid his “restless” soul of “provincial inexperience,” “interior rules,” and “provincial squeamishness” and meets Jay Gatsby, an enigmatic multimillionaire who hosts dazzling parties. But Gatsby is revealed to be a fraud—he is plain old “James Gatz of North Dakota” whose tragic end results from the “constant, turbulent riot” of his heart, his break from the poor “farm people” of his youth, and his rootlessness. Ultimately, Carraway returns to the Midwest, noting:
That’s my middle west…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.
The eclipse of rural America
It was in 1920 when the Census showed for the first time that a majority of Americans—51 percent—lived in urban areas. That number is now up to 81 percent. To a degree, these demographics foretell the inevitable cultural eclipse of the Midwest.
But this in itself presents something of a puzzle. Given the inevitability and decisiveness of this shift in power, why the continued bitterness toward rural/ small-town/“Red State” America, as the Midwest largely is?
We can get an idea by returning to Carl Van Doren’s 1921 essay. In it, he decried not only the dominance of “the village,” but the values associated with it. Historian James Shideler describes those values as “a conventional certainty about good and evil, with staunch adherence to the values of hard work, thrift, and self-denial.” Therefore, elites revolted not so much against “the village,” but its typical values. As the village declined, the suburb became the new target for assault by bien-pensant intellectuals as the locus of stultifying conformity in novels such as Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road or Couples by John Updike.
A century on, we ought to say that the work of Lewis to some extent and Fitzgerald to a large extent are mispresented by “revolt from the village” characterizations. In Lewis’s case, his view was certainly more nuanced and affectionate than this interpretation allows. In Fitzgerald’s case, it doesn’t fit at all. Sadly, in its century of dominance, this view has done much harm.