Diary: Phil Christman, Inventing the Midwest

The annual meeting of the American Historical Association in 1893, which the organizers had pushed back by several months so as to coordinate with the Chicago World’s Fair celebrating the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s expedition, must have seemed like a fortuitous occasion for historian Frederick Jackson Turner to deliver himself of his now-notorious “Frontier Thesis.” With its combination of worldwide scope (delegates and exhibits from everywhere) and national triumphalism, the fair staked a clear claim: What Columbus started, Chicago finishes. Turner’s paper made this subtext text. He started from the observation that, in the eyes of the government, there was no longer really a “Western frontier.” He quoted a report from what we would today call the Census Bureau:

Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it cannot, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.

He comments: “This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historical movement.” America is settled. There is no more territory for which to light out.

Given what follows, you would expect Turner to find this news depressing. To him, the frontier forced us to be hardy, while “higher social organization” tempered that hardiness, yielding the quintessential American personality: “coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness.” But Turner hedged his bets: “He would be a rash prophet who should assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased.” (Reading this line, you can almost hear Latin America shudder.) He only knows that the country has entered a new phase: “the frontier is gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.”

So now America is a fully developed, achieved proposition. We have lived through all our stages of growth and come into ourselves at last, and the middle of the country is where this is accomplished. The historian Susan Gray detects echoes in Turner’s language of then-dominant evolutionism: the new characteristics that the “old” races of the world acquired in their struggle to build a world among the prairies and forests would create an actual new, American race, in the pseudoscientific sense of the term.

As the place equidistant between frontier “coarseness and strength” and “higher social organization,” the Midwest would be, for Turner, the ne plus ultra of Americanness. Not coincidentally, in the first part of the twentieth century, writes James Shortridge, “The Middle West came to symbolize the nation … to be seen as the most American part of America.” Nor is average Americanness the same as average Russianness or average Japaneseness, for the United States has always understood itself, however self-flatteringly, as an experiment on behalf of humanity. Reviewing Turner, Frank Harris wrote: “[T]he whole world is our nation and simple humanity our countrymen.”

Thus, Midwestern averageness, whatever form it may take, has consequences for the entire world; what we make here sets the world’s template. And to innovate is to standardize; the new becomes the new normal and then just normal. For a machine to enter mass production, you have to decide on a standard gauge size; for railroads to work, you have to have one kind of spike, one kind of trail; for Flint to be America’s future, you have to build an interstate highway system (but not, for example, national passenger rail). A successful innovation bends the world in its direction. So as the Midwest played host to so many visions of the American future, it also associated itself with the idea of American normality.

Ford and Fordism can be seen as little more than the mass production of averageness: a standard workday, a standard wage, a car that comes in any color as long as it’s black. The labor movement, in its negotiations with capital, worked out what many then took as a template for all developed economies. George Gallup, inventor of the poll, was born in Iowa, began his career in Des Moines at Drake University, and worked for a time at Northwestern; sex researcher Alfred Kinsey scandalized the country from—of all places—Bloomington, Indiana, while Masters and Johnson mapped the Female Orgasm from St. Louis, a place they had chosen to work because they thought people there were more “normal.”

Robert and Helen Lynd, setting out in the 1920s to study the “interwoven trends that are the life of a small American city,” did not even feel the need to defend the assumption that the chosen city “should, if possible, be in that common denominator of America, the Middle West.” They chose Muncie, Indiana, and called it Middletown. Sinclair Lewis, in Main Street and Babbitt, associated the Midwest with the vulgarity and acquisitiveness—but also the dull decency and thwarted idealism—that for him defined America. Thorstein Veblen—a Norwegian-American from Wisconsin, and thus, perhaps, a zero degree of Midwesternness—did the same in a series of economics books that read in places a bit like novels, with long, cruel character sketches. Even people who wanted to attack the Midwest couldn’t do it without reinforcing this idea. When Van Wyck Brooks decided to attack America as a whole, he did it by conflating it with Midwestern villages and condemning both.

 As Greg Grandin has pointed out, that old idea of the frontier, which continued to define American identity for over a century after the Census Bureau reported the frontier closed—think of Kennedy’s “New Frontiers”—really, finally, has closed, and it has closed because of climate change. We simply cannot economically expand forever in the old way; nature is asserting limits.

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To want to go off on your own—to build a community on a sort of middle frontier, on one side of you an old civilization hardening like grandpa’s arteries and on the other a pure but punishing wildness—that’s Midwestern. I almost want to propose that we try to rehabilitate the idea as a moral frontier: that we transfer the energy, the excitement, that has traditionally surrounded the idea of the frontier (at least for white people) to the project of living generously, peaceably, and inclusively with our neighbors, old and new, human, animal, and plant. That we apply the idea of going beyond the limits of our current moral and political maps to the project of living decently within our physical limits—without throwing anyone else away. People will want to live here; those of us who already do have been given a chance to respond to this influx with a decency and humaneness that would, if we attained it, mark a new spot on the map of what humans can do. This historical moment invites us to begin a long transformation of the Midwest: from fund to place; from a speculator’s toy to a crowded but ultimately accommodating home for whoever needs it. It invites us to construct a we that everyone can wear. It invites us to think about utopia again, and to lovingly fail at building it.

The idea of the American frontier is so violent and colonial that I can propose this metaphor only ironically: as though I were a pacifist proposing war upon war. But of course that is a venerable maneuver among pacifists.

A former substitute teacher, shelter worker, and home health aide, Phil Christman currently lectures in the English Department of the University of Michigan. He is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, a journal sponsored by the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts program. This piece was drawn from his new book, Midwest Futures, published by Belt Publishing in Cleveland, Ohio. Support independent publishing with your order! Portions of this essay appeared in an earlier form in The Hedgehog Review.

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