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  • Re-Centering the Center
  • Edward Watts (bio)
The Midwestern Pastoral: Place and Landscape in Literature of the American Heartland, William Barillas. Ohio University Press, 2006.
American Literary Regionalism in a Global Age, Philip Joseph. Louisiana State University Press, 2007.
Chicago Dreaming: Midwesterners and the City, 1871–1919, Timothy B. Spears. Chicago University Press, 2005.

I began writing this in a coffee shop near Holland, Michigan, the famed destination for Dutch immigration throughout the late nineteenth century and still an important center of Dutch and Christian Reformed denominations. Its prosperity was long based on furniture built from woods harvested from the local forests and the fruits and vegetables processed by the enormous Heinz plant at the head of Lake Macatawa situated nicely between the St. Lawrence and Mississippi shipping lanes. So far, this fits the image of the Midwest as a region as a mostly white, agrarian and industrial, and Protestant national center where ethnic difference is based on which northern European nation one’s ancestors left to move here—the narratives we recognize as the raw materials of regional or local color writing during its “ascendency” in the terms of Donald Weber, around a century ago.

However, in the summer of 2008, it was announced that more people now live outside the city and in the township. Many confess to having left because of strife between rival Mexican and Vietnamese street gangs. Each group came to the area because of its strong industrial and agricultural base, though now most of the factory and picking jobs have been evaporated by downsizing, outsourcing, and automation, and the city’s tax-base has shrunk as the descendants of the Dutch have built houses in former corn fields and orchards of the township. The township has no “downtown,” just a strip with roughly the same franchised restaurants, bookstores, home furnishing, and hardware stores that litter every strip from Maine to California. Is that how you imagine the Midwest?

Our scholarly conversations about American literary regionalism—especially its Midwestern variant—refer usually to the older image almost exclusively. Writers are described as [End Page 859] “regionalist” if they represent, with an emphasis on realist technique, conditions in American small towns and farms at the moment of industrialization and urbanization—representations characterized by a tendency to romanticize the past and protect local identity. These writers stand apart from the necessary homogenization of the national culture as the US transitioned from marginal former colony in 1850 to imperial superpower in 1950. Starting with Caroline Kirkland and Edward Eggleston, and running through Sherwood Anderson and Edgar Lee Masters, Midwestern regionalists struggled with finding a place for the Midwest in this narrative. The place of their work in what has come to be known as the canon of “American Regionalism,” has been well documented in recent decades by scholars such as Stephanie Foote, Tom Lutz, Marjorie Pryce and Judith Fetterley, James Hurt, Kate McCullough, and others. Historians such as Andrew Cayton, Jon C. Teaford, John Mack Faragher, and Timothy Mahoney have corroborated the narratives of both regionalist authors and literary scholars.

Given these changes to Holland, Michigan, and in dozens of other midwestern towns, how can we still think about literary regionalism in both its contemporary manifestations and in our reconsideration of “regionalism” as a pre-World War I phenomenon linked to pastoralism, nostalgia, and local color as means to resisting the changes wrought by industrialism? In brief, how does regionalism figure in the post-industrial moment? All three of these studies (along with other recent studies by Cheryl Temple Herr, Hal Barron, and others) endeavor both to reconfigure the place of Midwestern regionalism in American literary history and to read their narratives into the current moment, reviving them for contemporary readers and creating new strategies for teaching and reading these texts. Midwestern authors are still too often written out of “American” literature courses by the enduring geographical provincialism and the self-referentiality of the coastal cultural, academic, and publishing centers of the nation.

Each book addresses a different set of writers (save for Willa Cather, addressed by all three), but it might be an appropriate start to link William Barillas’s and Timothy Spears’s books through Philip...


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