In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Imagined Midwest
  • June Howard (bio)

My contribution to this symposium on midwestern identity comes from the perspective of a scholar who works on regional writing and the human orientation to place in general—not specifically on the Midwest. But the challenge of understanding midwestern identity is an urgent one for me. I am (mostly) a Midwesterner. Location matters, and I live in and think things through from Michigan.

I do, of course, have connections to other places. I was born in California, I have close family members across twelve time zones, I travel (at least—writing under a stay-at-home-order in April 2020—I did until recently). And, of course, what I do and think is constantly shaped by the constant circulation of matter and ideas through the place I inhabit. That is true, in one way or another, for all of us. The geographer Doreen Massey's argument that the "particular mix of social relations which … [define] the uniqueness of any place is by no means all included within that place itself" has been a key starting point for my work.1 This seemingly simple statement opens out into a recognition of locations as not only porous, but also always in process—so that it becomes impossible to think about place without thinking about time.

Seeing our endeavors to draw boundaries and define identities as "attempts to stabilize the meaning of particular envelopes of space-time" has profoundly changed both my scholarly work on regionalism and my everyday thinking about what it means to be a midwestern American.

Regional literature is oft en described, both by its authors and by critics writing about them, as the characteristic emanation of a particular place. Wisconsin writer Hamlin Garland asserts in his 1894 manifesto Crumbling Idols, for example, that: "Local color in a novel means that it has such quality of texture and back-ground that it could not have been written in any other [End Page 21] place or by any one else than a native. It means a statement of life as indigenous as the plant-growth. … [T]he tourist cannot write the local novel."2 There is a huge body of valuable research on the distinctive cultural productions of each region of the United States. From the 1970s, the focus has oft en been the recovery of women writers, and both male and female writers of color. This work continues, for example in the collaborative exploration of the "multilingual Midwest" recently undertaken at my university.3 Since the 1990s, however, a very different perspective has also emerged, with literary scholars emphasizing not authors' orientation to the local but rather the circulation of their works in national magazines during an era of national consolidation. This, too, is powerful and persuasive work, and many critics now assume that local-color writing is a representation of remote places for elites elsewhere—precisely, a form of literary tourism.

It is easy to find reasons to object to either of these views (and not just because I have simplified and polarized them in order to condense). Assertions of authenticity like Garland's face an appropriately skeptical reception in the twenty-first-century academy. On the other hand, the fact that localcolor writing was published in the elite-oriented journal Atlantic Monthly does not logically mean it circulated only there—and there is empirical evidence to the contrary.4 Seeing space itself as necessarily porous and in process has helped me to understand that these perspectives do not so much refute, as correct and complement, each other. We can attend to the substance of the Midwest, to the actuality of its land and people; we can at the same time recognize that its identity is relational, depending on its position in a web of verbal contrasts and on historical connections that encompass the planet. In fact much (not all) of the regional literature that has interested and influenced me, whether from the nineteenth, twentieth, or twentyfirst century, does both. When we read writing about particular places, we recognize the genre we call regionalism—however its attention is balanced between the local and the translocal.

The first runaway success of the local-color...