A souvenir postcard, found on the web, says “Don’t think that all the gold/Is treasured in Alaska/For golden corn and Golden Rod/Enrich the state Nebraska.” Goldenrod, named Nebraska’s state flower in 1895, is a drooping profusion of gold that looks an awful lot like a sheaf of wheat. Often mistaken for ragweed, goldenrod is paradoxically the cure for ragweed allergies—a local herbalist taught me how to walk through the prairie in late summer and pick goldenrod at its peak, stuffing the stems into a Mason jar, covering them with Everclear, and letting the medicine cure for six weeks before straining it into bottles and taking a dropperful at a time, as needed. I’ve found the Nebraskan Midwessay to be goldenrod personified: understood only through its oppositional references while its author patiently undoes misconceptions. These essays on the Nebraskan Midwessay may confirm your cliches, but I’d encourage you to look closer: what appears to cause the problem is actually the solution.
Midwest means scrappy, gritty, lean. Not the place but the character that has grown out of it, the temperament that calls it home.
We have two older brothers. We grew up smaller, scrawnier, never favored, never doted on, never spoiled. We hung with the older kids—we tomboys, we underdogs with something to prove. With military drums in the background, like we are marching into battle, Kanye raps in the opening line of the opening verse of an arrival anthem on his first album, “Do you know what the midwest is? Young and restless.”
But we have grown up and come into our own. We gave up traveling and learned to stay home. We have outgrown our inferiority complex and cast it aside like a secondhand jacket. It was never a good fit for us, never ours in the first place.
And really, how could we feel competitive?
Neither the terrain nor our considered opinions allow for it. Life is met at the boundary, on the frontier, in the unnamed and wild. We don’t say this; we inhale and perspire it and it evaporates again into the air that surrounds us. It soaks into you—the person tiny on the horizon, humanity eclipsed by the landscape. We have one eye on civilization and one eye beyond it. The wide-open sky, the endless plain—a match for desire. Willa Cather is the poet who best understands this, our midwest expansiveness, “the immeasurable yearning of all flat lands.”
You can hear it in a strain of great American musicians of the mid-20th century, since jazz grew up in the midwest. Born in New Orleans, it spent its adolescence along the rivers of Illinois, Missouri and Kansas. St. Louis, St. Joseph, Kansas City gave their space, their tempo and mood to the music; they impressed their essential geography on its sound.
That’s why Miles Davis said he got along with Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker, musically and socially: their shared background, the years they all spent absorbing the land, the mystical vibrations of the woods, the colossal features of the plains. You can hear it yourself, especially in their ballads, in how they use space, the dilation of an individual note. There is something back-roads and rural in their music, something lonely, detached, endlessly longing, floating above it all.
Last, midwest means simple. Not nice, not even sincere, which still suggests too much warmth and affection; we cut more than we flatter or caress. And not the type of simplicity that doesn’t know sophistication, but the type of simplicity that comes after it, the kind that knows sophistication and disdains it: the simplicity of Hemingway, whose childhood home lies right outside Chicago. Just like his prose, midwest means forthright, undissembling, naked. We are truth-loving people with our feet firmly planted in the ground.