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"Flyover Country" Is an Insult to Midwesterners Like Me. So Is "Heartland" Sentimentality.

Scott Olson/Getty Images News

The first time I registered the term “flyover country,” my freshman year at a liberal arts college in Southern California, I was more bewildered than angry. I had grown up in Springfield, Illinois, population 117,000, and while I’d been eager to leave and explore the coasts, I’d never thought of the city with anything other than a sense of proprietary comfort. Yet here I was, aged 18, running into pervasive, indifferent dismissal. To the people doing the labeling, Springfield, the state capital, was no different than Peoria, population 115,000, and together these were just a few notches up from towns like Hettuck, Virden, Waverly, and Auburn, with populations ranging from 200 to 4,000, that dotted the Illinois countryside. Only Chicago shone out from flyover country’s dimly lit firmament: The city, people tended to say, that sounded pretty, but they’d never been.

My reflexive response to this attitude was to embrace the rhetoric of the “heartland,” the inverse of “flyover country,” in which the Midwest became the most exceptional place in America. This was a helpful if dishonest way to turn every critique of the region into a virtue, as in, “We may not have public transportation, but driving cars just makes us more self-sufficient!” Mine was not an uncommon reaction—the rhetorical war over the Midwest has been waging quietly for a hundred years, its earliest practitioners including Willa Cather (O Pioneers!), whose Nebraska plains produced solid citizens filled with romantic yearnings, and Sinclair Lewis (Main Street), whose small, smug Minnesota prairie towns stifled them. Eventually, I developed a more layered perspective, and I’d forgotten about my raw recognition of "flyover country" until recently. I remembered it because of a strange convergence, the release of three books making a case for the Midwest: novelist Diane Johnson’s Flyover Lives, a memoir of her childhood and her search, as an adult, for her roots; historian Jon K. Lauck’s The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History, which is partly an academic protest of historians’ implicit dismissal of the region, partly a raw cry of cultural neglect; and Ohio journalist and professor David Giffels’ The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt, reflections on the region's transformation from a center of postwar production into a case study of the ravages of the postindustrial economy.

I’m not exaggerating when I call this convergence of books strange. Unlike the South, the West and the Northeast, the Midwest is a chronically understudied area. These books try, with varying degrees of success, to the give the region its due, to define what, if anything, makes it unique. Each author has a richly detailed emotional understanding of different parts of the Midwest—rural Illinois for Johnson, South Dakota for Lauck, and rust belt Ohio for Giffels—and it’s this quality that consistently keeps their books absorbing. They describe the lingering appeal of a region that began as a rough, egalitarian frontier, came into its own during the Civil War by tilting the balance decisively towards the North, boomed thanks to the twentieth-century industrial economy and, after World War II, became increasingly connected with the rest of the country even as its economic viability diminished. Unlike many parts of the coasts, as well as the South and West where lax labor laws have attracted multinational corporations, the Midwest enjoys a degree of insulation from drastic changes. There’s still relatively little ethnic or religious diversity, there’s plenty of space to own land, prices aren’t too high, there’s not too much traffic congestion and, in an environment this familiar, people can afford to be friendly. For better or for worse, depending on who you ask, the region provides a gentle cushion against the pressures of twenty-first century America.

But the descriptiveness is lodged uncomfortably next to bursts of the aggressive regional boosterism I embraced for a while at college. The authors inflate their personal observations into broad, sentimental assertions about the region’s unique character, providing repeated examples of how the rhetoric of the heartland versus the coasts has infiltrated even thoughtful treatments of the subject. Midwesterners, in Lauck’s view, are especially egalitarian: He quotes Frederick Jackson Turner’s view of the region as a place where “pioneer ideals were at work and continued to sustain the American “‘faith in the destiny of the common man under freedom.’” For Giffels, Rust Belt survivors take “the hard way on purpose,” know that “the struggle is the only true freedom,” and are possessed of “a Calvinist instinct adapted into the genetic code by way of the repetition of a three-shift factory town.” For Johnson, “Looking at the Midwest of long-departed people and even my own childhood could remind of things people talk about as being missing in America today, and help remedy our apparent inability to learn from other cultures that might be doing things that if we did them too would restore the charm and goodness of our own society—trains, for example, and nice long vacations. Mom-and-pop restaurants!”

These are not satisfactory depictions of Midwestern reality, 70 years ago or today. They’re threads in a regional narrative suffused with nostalgia that doesn’t so much rescue flyover country from cultural neglect as raise questions about why it’s so widely sentimentalized—and why its modern complexities are elided by people—like Johnson, Lauck and Giffels—who should be most aware of them.

Probably the clearest reason for these authors’ sentimental lurches is a crisis of identity brought on by almost 70 years of national integration since World War II and the coming of the postindustrial economy. The Midwest was always less distinctive than other regions, but the spiraling dominance of consumer culture at the expense of local distinctions has rendered it increasingly dependent on what’s produced on the coasts. (David Giffels is particularly acute about this problem, recalling his childhood in Akron when he desperately tried to locate “coolness,” even as its definition and source became more opaque.) What’s more, the Midwest doesn’t have many unique, popularly resonant cultural exports that define the amorphous region in its entirety—say, country music or Westerns or even William Faulkner. (Compared to Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis and Willa Cather and even the sporadically Midwestern-inspired Jonathan Franzen are second-tier.) The resulting defensiveness about Midwestern identity percolates these books, an instructive counterpoint to their aggressive regionalism.

Giffels recalls appearing on Fox News in 2004 election and bridling when host Steve Doocy asked him for a sentence about Ohio politics, offering back the perennial, “It’s complicated.” Lauck complains that the national media ignores Midwestern issues, but offers as examples of possible coverage “the ongoing harvest, the culmination of the football season, the pheasant-hunting ‘opener,’” which aren’t particularly resonant in a competitive national news market. Most instructive is Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist who casts about for a reason for why growing up in the Midwest, or returning to it, is important to her. She admits that her justification is nostalgic, then asserts that “nostalgia can add up to a hopeful reminder that, having always been told ours is the best society, we could look at ourselves more squarely and recognize that in places where we aren’t the best, we could improve.” The notion that sentimental memory encourages clarity is a dubious one in the abstract and certainly in these books, where sentimentality instead masks the places where the Midwest needs help, or where it’s changing in unexpected ways.

One absence in Flyover Lives, The Lost Region and even The Hard Way on Purpose is a consideration of many of the extremely modern problems that have begun to affect the region. Nowhere in these books is there a serious mention of the methamphetamine epidemic, which spiked in the early 2000s, levelled off and is climbing again in rural areas and factory towns among immigrants and the working poor. Many of these people first get hooked using meth to stay awake for long night shifts, which they have taken on to compensate for their declining factory wages. The demand has grown to the point where Mexican drug cartels are supplanting local dealers, bringing with them the risk of serious violence. Nowhere is there mention of the region’s increasing reliance on foreign labor, the poor working conditions these mostly Latino immigrants endure, or the mixed-to-positive effects of their arrival. Drive 60 miles west of Springfield and you’ll come to Beardstown, Illinois, a meatpacking town, which in the past 20 years has seen a nearly 17 percent increase (from .7 percent to 17.3 percent) in its foreign-born population: Its struggles are nowhere to be found in these books. Finally, though Giffels emphasizes the exodus of native-born Akron residents to the coasts, he doesn’t appear interested in the lower high school and college prospects for Midwesterners. In February, Bloomberg projected that “the Midwest is headed for a 7.2 percent decline of [high school] graduates in the Class of 2014, almost 55,000 fewer than its peak year of 2008, which had about 772,000,” and cited as causes the falling birthrate and decline of manufacturing.

These books’ elisions are examples of a broader cultural trend. Rarely do the region’s evolving realities permeate the national conversation. Coverage of the ravaging meth spike in the past four years, for instance, has been left to Midwestern agricultural newspapers, largely because the dominant tropes of the bucolic heartland and backward countryside still hold sway. To support his claim of media misrepresentation, Lauck tells a story about A.G. Sulzberger of The New York Times, who visits South Dakota and asks Lauck what to report on. Lauck offers a comprehensive list, which Sulzberger ignores in favor of a “local interest” story on the weather. It’s fair for Lauck to complain, but in some ways Sulzberger is only buying into the sentimental image that a broad swath of Americans—not least Midwesterners—have constructed together.

Within these constraints, a focused public conversation about the region and how to improve it never materializes. This matters, since public opinion and awareness helps dictate, eventually, where public resources go and where college recruitment drives focus. This is a region where lower and middle income students are being left behind, where rural communities are being fractured by drugs, and where a growing Latino population heralds demographic and perhaps political shifts. There’s something deeply, viscerally comforting about the notion of a place that calmly absorbs change, or one that, like Giffels’s Akron, suffers exterior bruises but whose essential “hard way on purpose” character endures. In fact, these books suggest that this imagined placidity may be the Midwest’s single unifying cultural export. But it’s also a cultural construct—one that effectively alllows Americans, including Midwesterners, to avoid confronting the region’s evolving complexities. Diane Johnson is right, if unremarkable, when she urges Americans to “look at ourselves more squarely and recognize that in places where we aren’t the best, we could improve.” Like the other two books, Flyover Lives falls short of this dictum, but the rest of us ought to take her advice.