The Outstater

June 21, 2023

Let’s Hear it for the Midwest

THERE ARE MANY social and political threats these days against which we are asked to stand — too many in fact. So I have chosen just one: I stand against Midwest denigration, if the word is still allowed. We live in a wonderful place with an inspiring story and we need to say so.

To begin, I recommend my colleague Andrea Neal’s book, “Road Trip: A Pocket History of Indiana.” It will give you an accurate base on which to evaluate how we got where we are.

Also, there is David McCullough’s “The Pioneers.” He builds his book around the promise in the great Northwest Ordinance of secure property, the promise that brought my forefathers here and likely yours as well.

More general is John Lauck’s “The Good Country.” Lauck covers the Midwest at its zenith, the Midwest where the prairie was cultivated in an amazing 50 short years and the wondrous prototypes of the automobile, telephone, electric motor and more were built, all turning America into the richest, most advanced nation in the world only 150 years from its founding. There had been nothing like it in the history of the world.

Most important, it was a period that put on display the values of our great-great grandparents, values which still guide us and our children (in diluted form alas). This from Wilfred McClay in the current Claremont Review of Books:

“The American Midwest during its prime was the most democratically advanced place in the world, with a civic culture that prized education, literature, libraries and the arts, and sought to distribute an awareness and appreciation of them as widely as possible. It developed a ‘common democratic culture’ in which ‘Christianity, republican law and order, market culture, civic obligation and a midwestern-modified gentility of manner largely prevailed.’”

Some of us take the Midwest personally. Our families have been here since before the Northwest Ordinance. It is the only place we’ve ever wanted to stay, where we understand the people, where the pace is right.

But in adulthood it has been at first a puzzle, then a concern and finally a disappointment that others who grew up here do not share that allegiance. They seem embarrassed by the Midwest and take every chance to demonstrate Babbitt-like that their tastes in fashion, entertainment and travel rise above the provincial.

My co-workers at a corporate newspaper were careful to differentiate themselves from “the locals.” They were blind to schemes mounted by distant financial interests promoting a “big city” vibe downtown (at three times the assessed value). The city treasurer, meanwhile, was boning up on municipal bankruptcy law.

Ironically, I have found that the most sincere Midwest loyalty is often found in friends who moved here from elsewhere and “went native,” who had experienced alternate, supposedly more sophisticated lifestyles and chose ours instead. Indeed, much of what the East Coast considers sophisticated was incubated here in Lauck’s “Good Country.”

Harold Ross, for example, founder of the epitome of sophistication, The New Yorker magazine, is a midwesterner (well, perhaps more Great Plains). Here are some other examples of sophisticates whose hearts remained with the great middle of our country — all natives who found fame and fortune but remembered us fondly and with admiration (at least most of the time):

Sinclair Lewis, Damon Runyon; Cole Porter; Hoagy Carmichael; Earnest Hemingway; Mark Twain; Frank Lloyd Wright; Ray Bradbury; Miles Davis; David Mamet; Garrison Keillor; Carl Sandburg; James Dean; Kurt Vonnegut; Grant Wood; T.S. Eliot; John Huston; Charlie Parker; Georgia O’Keeffe; Orson Wells; Laura Ingalls Wilder.

A favorite is Nancy (née King) Zeckendorf, who reached the heights of New York City ballet and became a fixture in philanthropic circles but got the money to attend her first dance lessons selling earthworms at the side of a Midwest road.

Does that tell you something about the character that abounds here?

Finally, I have a word picture. It is of a ficus tree, a semi-tropical species popular with the managing elite of Miami, the headquarters of that newspaper I mentioned. The corporate types shipped in dozens for their offices here.

These particular ficus trees, however, didn’t take to Indiana light. Gradually, month by month, year by year, a few more leaves would yellow. Occasionally, as if with a sigh, one would fall as you sat in the board room awaiting another round of diversity training.

But corporate never gave up on the ficus. They were in the architectural floor plans, after all, so nobody dared take them out. Towards the end of my tenure the ficuses stood forlorn — mangy flora from a foreign land.

Some wanted to replace them with geraniums or peonies but they didn’t have the authority. — tcl


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