Author: Phil Christman
Publisher: Belt Publishing
Publishing Date: April 7, 2020
Pages: 150 (Hardcover)
Writing about the Midwest is, as many have observed, the trite cliché which became a reality, and then a marketable commodity. With the American South as the possible competitor here, no other region of the United States is subject to as much bemusement and demeaning observations than the Midwest. As Katy Rossing describes it, writing about the Midwest typically moves from an innocuous description about the flatness of the landscape, to an exploration of the gift of the Midwest, to the moment of enlightenment: the Midwest is amazing, and there is so much hidden here! The treatments of the Midwest are fairly commonplace, and as such offer no serious evaluation of the Midwest. For the trope makes no attempt to hide the assumption that when “flyover country” and “real America” offer anything of depth, it’s unexpected: a diamond hidden under amber waves of grain. But, as Phil Christman puts it, the Midwest “gifts us more information than it can take in; dazzled, bedazzled, we give up on it and call our failure boredom” (21).
To appreciate what Christman has done with Midwest Futures, we have to begin by appreciating the sheer artistry of the structure of the book. Composed of six “rows,” modeled after the Jeffersonian-era method of surveying the Midwest into six-by-six square mile grids, the book is comprised of thirty-six interlocking essays, six rows of six essays of exactly 1,000 words each. Each of the six rows of the book unpacks a single ongoing dimension of what the Midwest is, was, and might be, with each essay feeding into the next.
In other words, the very form of the book mirrors the world he writes about.
In a departure from so much other writing about the Midwest, this is no work of whimsy, no moral fable dressed up in diner photography. Christman’s aim throughout the rows of the book is to offer a vision of the Midwest through its history, its politics, its exploitation, and its promise. Sparsely weaving together his own history of the Midwest with historical accounts and political observation, what emerges as the book unfolds is less the story of a “real America” left behind than of a place which has always been the fodder for America’s future.
In the 18thcentury, as the Midwest (at that time, simply “the West”) was being surveyed, it was described by Thomas Hutchins, official geographer of the project, as “a fund which will eventually…extinguish the debt of the United States” (11). An increasingly amorphous geographical location, the Midwest was used as the launching place first for an agricultural revolution to pay down American debt from the Revolution, and then later as the point of departure for travelers as they headed to the true West of California. The Midwest, through the planning of Jefferson, became less a place of its own identity than that which always served other identities: the East, the West, the North.
This inauspicious and deeply utilitarian founding would, in fact, make (and make in the deeply artificial and force-laden sense of the word) the Midwest into an agricultural engine of the rest of the country. But, out of this place—birthed with a sense of it being the first step into the future—came unexpected histories which did not fit well into the vision of the Midwest as simply being a place to be used. Conflicts in the Midwest birthed the standing army of the United States; utopian settlements began to appear through the region; abolitionism thrived here when it sputtered in both North and South; concepts of agribusiness began here which then dominated the country; neoliberal economics could have begun in no other place than a university department in Chicago. In other words—in both pernicious and subversive ways—the Midwest would not simply be a fund to be used up.
It became the region which began to show America what it was capable of, holding forth both its angels and its demons.
Experimenting both for ill, with the removal of the Native Americans, and for better, with the founding of labor unions and utopias, the Midwest unleashed its visions on the world. To quote Christman,
Midwestern averageness, whatever form it may take, has consequences for the whole 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….A successful innovation, like a utopia, bends the world in its direction. So the Midwest played host to so many visions of the American future, it also associated itself with the idea of American normality (68-69).
The Midwestern averageness, along a literary and cinematic trope, finds its way into every corner of our cultural consciousness: Clark Kent from Kansas, John Hughes films set in Illinois, John Mellancamp songs about Indiana. But, alongside these “average” depictions rose discontents to homogeneity: Toni Morrison, Motown Detroit, Roxane Gay. For every wry Garrison Keillor, there is a less contended David Rhodes, describing a cannibal city flourishing beneath the mean streets of Des Moines.
This dual nature of the Midwest culture is wrapped up in its history of being both the place constructed for the future of interlopers and the place which refused to only dream about the past. “This is the unbearable truth of the Midwest, of America,” Christman offers. “The Minneapolis that welcomes immigrants and the Minneapolis that allows its police to beat the poor are the same place….One does not disprove the other” (91). And so now, in 2020, amidst climate change, xenophobia, social splintering, and political crises, the Midwest becomes again the starting place—the Iowa caucuses as the first stop to whatever else will befall the rest of us in November. Christman’s excavation—or perhaps, exorcism—of the Midwest is stunning in its form, its content, and most of all, in its vision. This is not a sentimental vision of the Midwest, only playing into the lamentable ways to view the Midwest as an exploitable fund of the dreams of others. If there is nostalgia here, it is not for the Midwest as a bastion of propriety, but for the Midwest as the rogue pioneer of what else could be America.
In reading this book, I am reminded not of John Winthrop’s metaphor of the city on the hill (as badly understood as Winthrop is), but of one of the progenitors of the most predominant form of Midwestern Christianity: John Calvin. For in Calvin, the corruption of humanity—the fallenness of every element of human cognition, desire, and orientation—does not negate what humanity is: the creature of God. Set aside banal notion of the fault lines of evil running through the hearts of all people; for Calvin, evil is terrible stuff and to be reckoned with dramatically. Evil is not simply the failure to be nice or hospitable, but to suppress the truth of ourselves: that we are created in the image of God, and have fallen from this.
When we are given exclusively prosaic pictures of Midwestern piety, one cannot help but think that Calvin was right, but in this way: evil names a misdirected love toward God, but the God who evil offends, we only ever know as the Creator of all things. For Calvin, we come to know God not just as God in the abstract, but as the Creator of the world, the one who calls creatures to mirror God’s character into creation. Accordingly, a kind of piety which glosses over the Midwest’s complex past and complicated futures is a kind of piety which neglects the God who has given us existence. To treat the present Midwest—its history, its people, and its possibilities—as a descent from a pristine past is to do the Midwest a disservice, and ultimately, to sin against it. To treat the Midwest as the jumble of possible futures that it is? That may be the highest act of devotion one could offer to a place God has given us to dwell.