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.
I think of the Midwest and I right away think of dreams. My dreams when I grew up there, and the dreams of most everyone I know. So much of my formative thinking was about getting out. Not to any one place, just out. Not that things were bad where I was, but good was forever haunted by better. Destinations drew the shifting map of my unformed ambitions—New York, Paris, name your cliche. With time, I did—as did most of my friends—leave, most of us ending up in one coastal enclave or another. For me it was Maine, then Boston.
The dreaming that sent me out over time became a hazy nostalgia for origins.
This, I realized recently, is what drew me to The Great Gatsby decades ago and has kept me magnetized ever since. The embedded polarity—all that glitter and beeping of horns set against the static vista of fields and lakes and lives of quiet rectitude.
How many novels have I read that started with some version of “I came East that Fall…”?
Gatsby does not unfold in the city, in the East, not really. The setting is beautifully rendered but it just seems to hovers, no ground under it. The triumph of the novel is that it finally fulfills itself with the briefest glimpses of Jay Gatsby’s origins—all that dissembling yanked away like a magician’s cloth, landing us in the Midwest, even as the prose swells into that great lyric celebration of the power of dreaming—ours, and, destructively, Gatsby’s.
Sven Birkerts is coeditor of AGNI. He is the author of ten books. He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation.He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke College, and the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, which he directed for ten years.