Book Bag: Straight from the heartland

The author of "Nothing to Declare" picks six great books about the Midwest.

By Mary Morris
Published August 4, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

As a Midwesterner -- a Chicagoan who grew up along the shores of Lake Michigan -- I have always felt the tug of home. When I learned that those shores have as much magnetism as the North Pole, I wasn't surprised; I'd always been drawn to the beaches and bluffs. And yet I needed to flee them. In graduate school I was struck by the flight of other writers from my region. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Twain, Cather, Dreiser and Nathanael West, to name a few, wrote their stories of Chicago, the Mississippi River and the prairie from either coast. Or from Paris. For a few years, until I dropped out, I contemplated writing my doctoral dissertation on the migratory patterns of Midwestern writers.

What is it about the Midwest that has produced writers deeply concerned with the themes of honesty vs. betrayal, small town vs. city and loyalty vs. passion, and yet who tended to write about them from Hartford, Conn., or Hollywood?

Recently I asked Patricia Hampl about the migratory patterns of Midwestern writers. Hampl, the author of the fine memoir "A Romantic Education," half of which describes her childhood in St. Paul, Minn. (Hampl lives in Fitzgerald's grandmother's house), replied that when Hemingway and Fitzgerald were writing, the only way to see the world and write about it was to leave. Now in this day of relatively easy global travel, not to mention more funding for cultural activities at home, Midwestern writers feel less need to depart.

Whether you are from there, or live there, as a rich community of such writers as Hampl, Garrison Keillor and Saul Bellow do today, the Middle West (despite its cities with restaurants named Coco Pazzo and Chez Paul) still grows out of a flat and expansive prairie where, my husband once remarked, there is nothing but farms, interstates and truck stops. Its cities are still cow towns. Yet over the years as I reread the authors of my youth and read new writers who write from Chicago or St. Paul or Kalamazoo, Mich., I have felt certain certain themes run through their work as if through a common vein. As Fitzgerald says in "The Great Gatsby": "Even when the East excited me most, even when I was most keenly aware of its superiority to the bored, sprawling swollen towns beyond the Ohio ... even then it had always for me a quality of distortion." For Fitzgerald, and for me, the Middle West has never told a lie.

Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather
When I think of the Midwest in literary terms, I turn first to Willa Cather, not to her more known novels such as "My Antonia," whose language and story have come to be synonymous with literature for me, but to her novellas, in particular "Lucy Gayheart." I read once that Joanne Woodward has been trying for years to make a film out of this poignant little story of Lucy, who at the age of 18 heads to Chicago from her small town in Nebraska to pursue her love of music. As with Dreiser's "Sister Carrie," Lucy is beautiful, passionate and naive, and she manages to attract her teacher, an aging singer named Clement Sebastian, who makes one last gasp at passion himself. But what interests me most in this novel are the events that transpire in Lucy's hometown before she leaves for Chicago and after she returns -- in particular what becomes of her devoted and unassuming childhood friend, Harry Gordon, who loves her. Here, Cather captures what in a way is her philosophy of Midwestern stories: "In little towns, lives roll along so close to one another ... their wings almost touching."

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Though many people think of "The Great Gatsby" as a novel of the East and its corruptions, I have always read it as a book about the West, and the Middle West at that. In the very first pages Fitzgerald talks about his relationship to his family, to decency and truth, to his roots. But then he has Nick Carraway say "Instead of being the warm center of the world, the Middle West now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe -- so I decided to go East and learn the bond business." And yet in the end Nick is filled with nostalgia, which seems to me a salient trait of Midwestern writers. "That's my Middle West," Fitzgerald writes. "Not the wheat or the prairie or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth ... I am part of that, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name. I see now that this has been a story of the West after all." I have read "Gatsby" over and over, and each time it comes back to me that it is not a book about a man who goes East, but rather a book about a man who comes from, and brings with him, the values of the West.

Believers by Charles Baxter
It seems to me that in contemporary times, a number of writers embody the traits of our literary ancestors. In this collection of stories and a novella, Baxter strikes me as a true antecedent. In his spare, direct language and forthright narrative, he is a direct descendant of Fitzgerald, especially in the title novella. "It is a story about fascism and believers, a story about the American Midwest and of how I came to be conceived and brought into the world by a priest. I suppose that announcing all this information ahead of time is poor form. I don't care. My existence is not the point of this story, in any case." As with Nick Carraway, this is no narcissistic narrator, writing about himself, but rather a narrator who has a story to tell, one bigger and more important than the one that happens to be his life.

The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek
Stuart Dybek is one of my favorite stylists and, I think, one of our great short story writers. Though not prolific, he writes from a deep place of language and memory, transformed into leaps of the imagination. In "The Coast of Chicago," Dybek takes the reader to the gritty streets of the neighborhoods where he grew up and the stories that preoccupy him. A beautiful girl is found frozen in a block of ice. A child's collection of bottle caps becomes the tombstones of an insect graveyard. The strains of Chopin evoke a mother's loss and a boy's coming of age.

A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton
This is the story of how a single mistake can forever change the lives of everyone it touches. In a small Midwestern town aptly called Prairie Center, Alice Goodwin lives with her two daughters and her husband. For six years the Goodwins have run a small dairy farm, yet they are still viewed as outsiders, hippies who think they can run a farm. Alice is basically a loner. She is torn between a desire for her own solitude and the need to create a sense of community for her family. One morning Alice steals a moment alone for herself to look at a map of the world. This leads to a tragedy and the town turns Alice into its scapegoat. Here we have small-town values turned inward, run amok.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
I have always felt a connection to William Maxwell, who began life in small-town Illinois and lived it as an editor of the New Yorker. So, finally, in memoriam, for Maxwell passed away this week: I have long loved this small gem of a novel. It is the story of a friendship between two boys and the crime of passion that tears them apart. Set in Maxwell's hometown of Lincoln, Ill., it is a book that begins with the feel of a memoir and ends from the point of view of a dog.

It seems to me in the end that all Midwestern novels are stories of coming of age, expansive as memory, empty as loss, like the prairie from which they have sprung.

Mary Morris

Mary Morris is the author of five novels, three collections of short stories and three travel memoirs. "Acts of God," a novel set in the Midwest, will be published by Picador in September.

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