Saturday, March 27, 2021

The #Midwessay: Karen Babine, Paul Gruchow and the Minnesota #Midwessay

Paul Gruchow and the Minnesota Midwessay

Karen Babine


When I was a sophomore in college, I took Dr. Kopperud’s class in Minnesota Writers, and was genuinely shocked to realize writers came from Minnesota. At the time, I’m not even sure I remembered that F. Scott Fitzgerald came from Minnesota. All my writing life, I’d been taught that important writing happened elsewhere, in New York or Los Angeles. Reading Paul Gruchow’s Boundary Waters, it was the first time I learned that you could write about Minnesota, even rural Minnesota, it could be published—and Boundary Waters had just won the prestigious Minnesota Book Award that spring. After all, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature was a Minnesotan. The permission to write about where I came from was dizzying—and then I learned that Gruchow himself was a visiting writer in our department, with an office just down the hall. Nearly twenty years later, my first book, whose literary lineage I could trace directly back to that Minnesota Writers class and you can write about anything, anywhere, was awarded the same.
There is no brief way to know a place even so small as this.  Places can be claimed but never conquered, assayed but never fathomed, essayed but never explained.  You can only make yourself present; watch earnestly, listen attentively, and in due time, perhaps, you will absorb something of the land.  What you absorb will eventually change you.  This change is the only real measure of a place. —Boundary Waters
     Minnesota is wild with memoirists like Patricia Hampl and Kao Kalia Yang, but the Minnesota Essay is another form entirely. The place consciousness of the Minnesota Essay seems foundational, to take the writer’s attention and seek value in this place, in this moment, back to a naive baby essayist sitting on the shores of the recently-flooded Red River after class, flabbergasted to be given permission to write about even the most un-sexy of landscapes, because they mattered too. When Gruchow started writing the southwestern Minnesota prairie, from Journal of a Prairie Year (1985) to The Necessity of Empty Places (1988) and Grass Roots (1995), the prairie was underappreciated territory. Writers went to the mountains, or the ocean. When he, and other essayists like Bill Holm and Carol Bly, started writing about the prairie, perceptions began to shift. Maybe I want to make the case that the Minnesota Essay is, at its heart, an activist form, that the act of putting words to paper like Sigurd F. Olson did in the 1950s led to the federal protection of the Boundary Waters, that there’s always an underlying argument to be made in any Minnesota Essay that this matters, that this place has influenced the people who live there, from the Iron Range to Lake Street. When they built I-94 through the historically-black north Minneapolis, they only built two off ramps, because who wants to get off in north Minneapolis? Place matters and the people who live in that place matter.
We ourselves seldom comprehend the moment at hand. So we turn to history, the one element of our lives it is possible to fix on. Or we turn to principle. Or we turn to nature. There we find, amid the silence and mystery, order and structure, the sense that life is not simply random.” —The Necessity of Empty Places
My friend Jim considers it his mission in life to convert people to the cult of Joseph Mitchell. Mine is to convert people to the cult of Paul Gruchow. Welcome. We have bad coffee and seven layer bars. Help yourself.

Karen Babine is the author of All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer (Milkweed Editions, 2019) and Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota, 2015), both winners of the Minnesota Book Award for creative nonfiction. She also edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.  She is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. Find her on Twitter , Instagram, and online at

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

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