Thursday, March 25, 2021

The #Midwessay: Michael Martone, The Mild, Mild-West

I think one of the things that I first came to love about Indiana, and particularly about Muncie, was its contradictions. It doesn’t quite know who or what it is, and so it’s a little bit of everything at once.

On any given day, you could walk into Rural King and feel like you’re in farm country, surrounded by men in Carhartts and work boots. A mile away, at the coffee shop right by campus, you can find a group of queer undergrads talking about poetry. Downtown, you’ll get served craft beer by tattooed bartenders with great taste in music, or can catch a drag show at Indiana’s oldest gay bar, which opened the year before the Stonewall riot. You can drive down Kilgore and see the ruins of the BorgWarner plant, empty as long as I’ve lived here, and it feels like Buffalo, like Cleveland, like Detroit, like any rust belt city that’s seen the jobs all leave.

Indiana is somehow all of these things at once: the rural heartland, the economically-decimated rust belt, home to vibrant college towns and one of the largest cities in the country, a state that is both known for cars and concrete and roads and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and is also home to Indiana Dunes, the Hoosier National Forest, Brown County. 

This is the place that gave the world Axl Rose, Adam Lambert, and Cole Porter. We’re responsible for both Eugene V. Debs and Mike Pence. (I didn’t say complexity was always good.)

There’s space here. The space to—like the space we create in an essay—embrace complexity, to explore it, to complicate rather than simplify. It feels, sometimes, like the possibilities are endless. —Silas Hansen, Indiana #Midwessay coordinator


The Mild, Mild-West

Michael Martone


We find ourselves on the back-end of Fredrick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis where “place” (the western frontier) not race, class, or gender, creates identity, occurring at the nexus of settlement and savagery. Turner, from Wisconsin, posited the Midwest and the westward expanding frontier as a kind of crucible of character, the granular ground where the busy knitting up of the edge of a wound takes place, the particular scarring of America. You can argue with the thesis, of course, and historians have, do, questioning the place of “place” on the hierarchy of constructed contestation, but I am staying put in “place” for a bit. 
     The flaw for me in the theory is not that it definitely defines a place but that the “frontier,” by definition, moves, moves relentlessly and leaves behind, in the leavings of the border agitation, a residue, a digest, a “settled” sediment now salted, sanded, weathered, worn fossilized ruins in its wake. And this is my Midwest. 
     The dramatic velocity of the leading edge is not the definition of “place” for me, but the static, the slow snow of, now, the “nowhere.” The nowhere is where I am at. Not the flyover so much, but the leftover.
     James Fennimore Cooper in his invention of “The Western” anticipates Turner with the fictional narrative of a mediating hero adept in the space between chaos and civilization yet unable to find a home in either competing region. Think of John Wayne caught in the doorway of The Searchers, the necessary evil unable to enter ever after. It’s attractive, that framed action figure, all that action. There goes Shane, the farmhand/gunslinger, slashing out of town. Comeback, Shane! He’s not coming back. And Marion Morrison’s not coming back to Winterset, Iowa, either.

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window….
Auden, not from the Midwest but Old York, just north of the Midlands, writes above about foregrounding the background. Foregrounding the background. Writing about the American Midwest is to open that window, reversing the view. One must marvel at something as wonderful as a window. It is solid and transparent! It can be opened while it appears to be open! One approaches the Midwest with such a lyrical bent, a bending toward making the familiar strange, the normal not. How does one capture the miracle of the mundane? Picture the picture window that pictures nothing? How does one see to see?
     In November of 1957, Auden visits Greencastle, Indiana, to read his poems at DePauw University. Did he fly (fly!) into Indianapolis or take the train, The Monon? I don’t know. He had to have read from his greatest hits: The “Musee des Beaux Arts,” “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.” 
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth…
The “nothing” that is mentioned as happening always struck me as the prescription for Midwestern writing, writing of the isolated ranches, the raw towns. 
     Down the road from where he read, in Speedway, Indiana (Speedway!) a memory is created every Memorial Day. Not a narrative so much but a particular kind of poetry. And constructed there is a craft essay on the craft of the Midwestern essay. Go! See the going! 500 miles of the going, going! Going, going nowhere fast. 

Michael Martone lives in Tuscaloosa. His most recent book is THE COMPLETE WRITINGS OF ART SMITH, THE BIRD BOY OF FORT WAYNE, EDITED BY MICHAEL MARTONE. He has edited four books on Midwestern writing: WINESBURG, INDIANA; NOT NORMAL, ILLINOIS; A PLACE OF SENSE; and TOWNSHIPS. FLATNESS AND OTHER LANDSCAPES won the AWP Prize for Creative Nonfiction. He recently retired from teaching having taught for 40 years.

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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