What will happen to me if I look up the dictionary definition of the word “definition?”
Etymology is one of the personal essay’s biggest clichés, but I do it anyway.
“A statement expressing the essential nature of something,” says Merriam-Webster.
All that happens is I remain confused. I’m trying to figure out: what is the Midwestern essay? But I must consider first: what is the Midwest?
“The northern central part of the U.S.,” says Merriam-Webster, then offers the example “the rich farmlands of the Midwest,” before adding, “often used before another noun” as in “my Midwest childhood.”
My Midwest childhood took place in the suburbs, but eventually, after some coastal sojourns, I settled in The City: Chicago, of course.
Obviously, Chicago is in the Midwest, but—definition by exclusion—I wouldn’t assume the Chicago essay is the Midwest essay. Geographically, sociologically, and literarily, Chicago both is and is not the Midwest. Better to say, maybe, that Chicago is the Midwest and then some—the Midwest-PLUS. Chicago has its own sensibility and concerns, on the whole more heterogeneous and metropolitan.
When I ask him about it, Northwestern professor and Chicago historian Bill Savage asks in return, “Aren’t Detroit and Chicago and Gary in the Midwest? But we still talk about ‘the Midwest’ as though it’s just farms and forests.”
Maybe, if one has ambitions, if one considers oneself an artist (how embarrassing to admit, especially among the down-to-earth denizens of the Midwest), then growing up in the regular non-urban Midwest evokes an almost comic anguish—a thirst to be somewhere where “Mid” does not indicate the middle of nowhere. A yearning like in Dance Night by that great Midwestern artist who fled the Midwest Dawn Powell, or like in every melancholy song by the quintessentially Midwestern Replacements.
Maybe what creates the Midwestern ethos of sincere longing often expressed by flight is space—it’s tricky to get a sense of scale in the relative emptiness; hard to judge your position relative to other people. There’s a gently Midwestern alienation, maybe, that leads to some strange ideas and grand projects: Jay Gatz dropping out of St. Olaf in Minnesota to make for more exciting climes; Weldon Kees ditching Beatrice, Nebraska for the scintillating intellectual life he imagined on first the East and then the West Coast. Maybe the attitude of the Midwestern artist defaults to a subtle aggressiveness? Not the hustle of New York City or the perfunctory fuck-you of Boston, but more of a cheery “Well, I’m doing this,” chirped through gritted teeth. An urge to make something as spectacular as possible such that no one will be able to ignore its brilliance (when actually, maybe back in the Midwest itself, nobody’s going to understand why anybody would want to make such a spectacle of themself in the first place).
Maybe the Midwest produces a distinctive work ethic: an industry born from loneliness.
But maybe one of the best places to go to combat that loneliness is Chicago. Like maybe the coasts get positioned as centers of the universe, and maybe those who dwell there believe that chiefly uncultured barbarians live outside their boundaries, but little do they know that there’s Chicago. Maybe Chicago’s not so hung up on being the hub, not so committed to performative striving.
Chicago as I write this is Chicago in winter, its buildings vast as icebergs soaring above the frozen January snowscape. My impressions of Chicago, still, are mostly about how real it seems, not staged—how it’s simply itself. Chicago has a winding lakefront: sandy beaches and broad old trees and skyscrapers so tall they get swathed in clouds. The filthy river criss-crossing the grid like some industrial Venice.
Chicago has a virile civic pride, its boosters and boasters puffing up and spreading out their accomplishments like the eyes on a peacock’s gleaming tail. Even though Chicago is and always has been segregated, violent, gentrified and gentrifying.
Chicago, the Second City, has a second-ness that it tries to but cannot deny. A shoulder chip it doesn’t necessarily want to talk about that’s always there. A Nelson Algren city on the makeness. A Studs Terkel Division Streetness.
In 1920, H.L. Mencken declared in The Nation: “Find a writer who is indubitably an American in every pulse-beat, an American who has something new and peculiarly American to say and who says it in an unmistakably American way, and nine times out of ten you will find that he has some sort of connection with the gargantuan abattoir by Lake Michigan—that he was bred there, or got his start there, or passed through there in the days when he was young and tender.” Hyperbolic, maybe, but with a ring of truth that echoes 100 years later.
Okay, but then what’s the Chicago essay? Maybe the only way to define it is ostensively—to point and say: that.
The Midwestern me is too humble to try, or at least to feel confident in the attempt—any effort to define anything is always already doomed to be wrong or incomplete, or to make somebody feel bad. But the Chicagoan me is brash enough not to let that hold me back.
So even though maybe the Chicago essay is too multifarious to list and name, and even though, I, Midwestern, desire to be nice and not exclude anyone, I give it the old Chicago try: Jane Addams, Jessica Anne, Eula Biss, Barrie Jean Borich, everything published about Chicago by BELT Publishing, Saul Bellow, Anthony Bourdain, Kim Brooks, Roger Ebert, Eve Ewing, Tony Fitzpatrick, Gina Frangello, Henry Blake Fuller, Abby Geni, Nestor Gomez, Rayshauna Gray, Ben Hecht, Aleksandar Hemon, Samantha Irby, A.J. Liebling, Dmitry Samarov, Elaine Showalter, W.T. Stead, Megan Stielstra, Rafael Torch, Sarah Vowell, Zoe Zolbrod. But plainly, still, I’m leaving so many out! And what do these writers even have in common exactly?
As another Chicago writer, Rosamund Lanin put it on Twitter a while back, “our cliché essays are more like finding gritty beauty in the heart of an industrial urban heartland something something Stuart Dybek something.” And someone else asked “why isn’t ‘Why I Moved to Chicago From (everywhere else in the Midwest)’ more of a genre?”
My favorite Chicago author at the time of this writing happens to be the underappreciated but poised for a comeback Bette Howland. Technically, it was published as fiction but it has the observational documentary quality of an essay, so here she is in “Twenty-Sixth and California,” a panoramic and political exploration of the criminal courthouse at that address: “I don’t know, maybe it wasn’t such a hot idea to build a city on this site. There is too much energy here. Along with the power of construction goes the power of destruction. Tohu and bohu. Vacant lots, buildings condemned, neighborhoods decayed. Chicago isn’t a city: just the raw materials for a city. The prairie is always reasserting itself, pressing its claims.”
I wanted this essay to be, per the specifications of the invitation, “between 100 and 500 words,” but here it is—pressing its claims. Maybe it’s not even done. Maybe it will just stay this way, defined, kind of, but also nebulous, like whatever we mean when we say Chicago, whatever we mean when we say, indefinably, “the Midwest.”
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