From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920-1965
From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920-1965

From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920-1965

by Jon K. Lauck


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609384968
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 06/01/2017
Series: Iowa and the Midwest Experience Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 266
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

JON K. LAUCK is the founding president of the Midwestern History Association, the associate editor and book review editor of the Middle West Review, and an adjunct professor of history and political science at the University of South Dakota. Lauck is the author or editor of several books, including The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History (Iowa, 2013). He lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

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From Warm Center to Ragged Edge

The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920-1965

By Jon K. Lauck

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2017 University of Iowa Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60938-496-8



When the twentieth century dawned, the American Midwest stood tall as the republic's ascendant and triumphant region — economically prosperous, politically formidable, culturally proud, and consciously regional. The Midwest, according to the geographer James Shortridge, "reached a pinnacle of self-confidence in the 1910s" when it was popularly viewed as the heartland of "morality, independence, and egalitarianism." In quick succession, however, this popular conception was upended, and the region's standing embattled. In the years after World War I, vocal intellectuals recast the Midwest as a repressive and sterile backwater filled with small-town snoops, redneck farmers, and zealous theocrats or, in a more benign version, as a "colorless, flat spot in the middle of America." This nascent interpretation was sparked by cultural rebels who had escaped their crimped upbringings in the region, unmasked its failings, and collectively, so it was argued, constituted a revolt from the village, or a cultural rebellion against the small-town and rural folkways of the Midwest. The "village revolt" interpretation won wide approval from the cultural elites of the era and was reinforced by a wider gathering of intellectual and political forces that were amenable to such a formulation; it fueled a spike in the number of attacks on the Midwest and, ultimately, a decline in attention to the region, despite the interpretation's deep flaws. To find the Midwest and its history, this flawed interpretation — which is still embraced by many intellectuals and still exerts great power in the American cultural imagination — must be dissected and amended so that a dated and one-sided but still common interpretive construction does not block the path toward finding the history of the Midwest. "One reason to know our own histories," Lucy Lippard explains, "is so that we are not defined by others, so that we can resist other people's images of our pasts, and consequently, our futures," and, as David Radavich argues, so that it is possible to combat the "cultural silencing" that too often mutes the voices of the Midwest.

The formative thrust of the revolt from the village interpretation came by way of an essay penned by Carl Van Doren, a Columbia University English professor and the literary editor of the increasingly radical magazine The Nation, in The Nation's fall book supplement of 1921. Van Doren argued that, for a half century, American literature had been "faithful to the cult of the village." The "essential goodness and heroism" of the village had been a "sacred" pillar of literature and had become a "doctrine" whose tenets included an appreciation of little white churches, corner groceries, decent and wise ministers, faithful local doctors, diligent farmers, and picturesque country scenes. But then, as World War I was raging, a cadre of literary truth-tellers emerged who revealed the realities of the "slack and shabby" village and exposed its closeted skeletons, secrets, sexual escapades, degeneracy, "grotesque forms," "subterfuges," "pathos," "filth," "illusions," "demoralization," "rot," "complacency," "stupidity," and "pitiless decorum which veils its faults" and obscured an "abundant feast of scandal." Van Doren celebrated, in particular, Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology (1915), Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (1919), Sinclair Lewis's Main Street (1920), and F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise (1920) and noted their embrace of a "formula of revolt" against "provincialism" that, after being consumed by the American reading public, would finally undermine the "hazy national optimism of an elder style" and cause the "ancient customs [to] break or fade." The "bright barbarians" of Fitzgerald, for example, "significantly illustrate[d] ... the revolt from the village," according to Van Doren, by breaking the "patterns" and "traditions which once might have governed them" and then "laughing" and pursuing "their wild desires" among "the ruins of the old." Van Doren thus privileged Fitzgerald's conception of the Midwest as the ragged edge of the universe and ignored any vision of the region as a warm center of communal and civic life.

Van Doren's interpretation was absorbed into subsequent historical treatments of the era. Frederick Lewis Allen's famous synthesis of the 1920s, published soon after the close of the decade, set the tone by spotlighting the "revolt of the highbrows" against boosters and Rotarians in "cities and towns where Babbitry flourished" and by noting the "overwhelming" impact of authors such as Sinclair Lewis, who "revealed the ugliness of the American small town." An early and influential interpreter of the era, Alfred Kazin, age twenty-three and writing from his kitchen table in Brooklyn as World War II approached, drew on Van Doren's formulation; cited the works of Masters, Lewis, Fitzgerald, and Anderson; and explained how the rebels "had revolted against their native village life in the Middle West" and attacked "provincialism" and the "ugliness" and "bitterness of small town life." After World War II, in his well-known summary of American intellectual history, Henry Steele Commager included a chapter, "The Literature of Revolt," that argued it was "incontrovertible" that almost "all the major writers" of the 1920s were critical of American culture and commercialism and embraced the "revolt from the farm" theme. When Mark Schorer's massive biography of Sinclair Lewis was released in 1961, Lewis was touted as the "great emancipator" of stunted souls from the Midwest's "smug provincialism" and "false sentiment and false piety." In 1969, Anthony Channell Hilfer published a book essentially restating the revolt thesis for a new generation and arguing that the work of the cultural rebels of the 1920s could be revived and used by the rebellious students of the 1960s. In another major synthetic treatment published during the 1970s, Richard Pells described the village rebels, who shared their "origins in rural and small-town America," as people who "found the village or farm claustrophobic" and "too constricting for individual creativity and self-expression." Pells specifically points to Anderson, Lewis, and Fitzgerald and sees them as part of a broader movement among intellectuals who rejected American life during the 1920s for its "stupidity, aimlessness, and vulgarity."

The working assumption that the Midwest was "culturally impoverished" and the critical focus on cultural rebellion have persisted in recent decades. Citing Fitzgerald, Anderson, and Lewis, Lynn Dumenil's 1995 synthesis of the history of the 1920s specifically relies on the "theme that historians have called the revolt against the village." In Christine Stansell's more recent treatment of the era, cultural "rebels" were drawn to Bohemia because, as one Greenwich Village resident said, they were "bored by some small place in the Middle West" and, as Stansell says, because they found the midwestern towns Sinclair Lewis described as "self-satisfied" and "mean-spirited." Critics continue to see Spoon River, Winesburg, and Main Street as the "principal monuments of a phase of American fiction known as 'The Revolt from the Village.'" In his comprehensive literary history of the Midwest, which tends to follow Van Doren's lead, Ronald Weber notes Van Doren's "celebrated 1921 article in The Nation" about the "revolt-from-the-village books." Weber views 1920, which saw the publication of key works of revolt, as the "high-water mark" for "midwestern writing," giving the village rebels center stage in the literary history of the Midwest. These supposed works of rebellion afforded privileged status to and, "conditioned by their early reception," provided "confirmation for what [critics] already believed" about the provincialism and monotony of the "American waste land" and the "plains and prairies that started west of the Hudson River"; this mode of thought has been consistently echoed by historians and other critics.

These historians and critics have thus contributed to the entrenchment and institutionalization of Van Doren's original interpretation, which has also migrated into journalistic accounts of the era. They have helped create what Maurice Beebe called the "revolt-from-the-village tradition," one shorn of any of the nuance Van Doren may have once recognized. Anthony Channell Hilfer, who favored the writings of the village rebels, explained that the revolt from the village formulation had "become an accepted rubric of historical criticism." The social and cultural criticisms in the alleged village rebels' books, which focused on the repression of thought and emotion and the conformity of small towns in places such as the Midwest, "gave the revolt unity." When Main Street became a national "sensation," Hilfer explains, the "revolt from the village became official, public, almost institutional" and Van Doren's thesis proven beyond doubt. Van Doren's "famous phrase," Gordon Hutner observes, became a "premise seemingly so true that it has never needed to be revisited." As an entrenched and unquestioned force in American letters, one that tidily summarizes an important cultural moment, however, the revolt thesis — an interpretation based on one tossed-off magazine summary of a few works of literature, not on historical analysis — serves not as a useful and accurate shorthand. Instead, it functioned and still functions as a set of blinders, blocking out and distorting significant parts of the past.

The village revolt interpretation is simplistic and flawed, and its "institutionalization" within the annals of history clouds our vision of the midwestern past. The failure to account for the intellectual and cultural context of the revolt obscures the reason that the thesis took hold and persisted. Accounting for the intellectual and cultural forces that gave the revolt thesis currency explains why it emerged to the exclusion of other emphases or more nuanced interpretations. The revolt thesis fails to fully comprehend other intellectual trends and cultural forces that complicate and undermine its assumptions, and it remains too stark and one-sided. It ignores, more specifically, regionalist or anti-rebel voices. The revolt thesis is also premised on a one-sided interpretation of the supposed rebels, who were more complicated than the thesis presumes. The village revolt interpretation thus blurs our ability to properly see regions such as the Midwest, which often served as the home of the rural areas, small towns, and "villages" under assault. If the typical traditions of the small town were the target of the purveyors of the village revolt thesis, as Hilfer notes, the "midwestern small town was doubly typical," and thus the Midwest's "hick towns" were doubly the target of attack. The works of Masters, Anderson, Lewis, and others, Ronald Weber notes, made the Midwest a "convenient whipping boy" and generated a "massive cultural resistance to the region." The "Middle West [became] a metaphor of abuse." But if the dominant place of the revolt thesis can be weakened and space can be created for more and varied voices from the past, the Midwest can be more fully comprehended.

The inspiration for Van Doren's village rebel characterization can be traced in part to the writings of the critic Van Wyck Brooks, who helps explain the origins of the revolt thesis and its effect upon the Midwest and, later, exposes its central flaws. Brooks grew up in New Jersey, the son of a failed and personally distant businessman, and attended Harvard, where his professors emphasized the coarseness of, inter alia, "the wilds of Ohio." Brooks's first book, The Wine of the Puritans (1908), blamed the continuing influence of the Puritan colonists and the materialism of the Westward-moving pioneers for the supposed sterility and shallowness of American culture. Brooks's second book, America's Coming of Age (1915), was, according to Van Doren, highly influential and "virtually the first book to voice the new age" complaints about the cultural repressiveness and provincialism in the hinterlands that formed the basis of the revolt thesis. For Brooks, the pioneer and the Puritan were "our cultural villains," and he specifically traced this villainy to the American Midwest. Brooks's third book, The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920), which was published the year before Van Doren's village revolt interpretation appeared, argued that Twain's imagination was repressed by "puritanism and pioneering" because he came from, as Brooks said, the "dry, old, barren, horizonless Middle West," "a desert of human sand! — the barrenest spot in all Christendom, surely, for the seed of genius to fall in." Brooks hoped for a day when "grotesque" places such as Sioux City, Iowa, and the "unlovable and ugly" towns of the American interior more generally would finally have culture and thus "dignity."

When Van Doren published the revolt thesis while drawing on Brooks's intense criticism of American culture, Brooks was closely allied with H. L. Mencken, who exerted great influence over American intellectual life during the era and generally hated "Middle Western Kultur." The keynoter of the cultural revolt of the 1920s, Frederick Lewis Allen concluded, was Mencken. In 1927, Walter Lippmann called Mencken "the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people." Mencken saw Americans as "provincial" and "stupid," and his "most articulate opponents were village editors, clubwomen, Fundamentalists, or conservative critics," who were often located in the Midwest. Mencken focused on the "loneliness and hopelessness of the buried life of small towns" and directed his attacks at the "provincial American" and viewed the elements of American backwardness as an "essentially rural phenomena." The Chicago writer James T. Farrell saw Mencken's writings as based on the "superiority of the values of the city over those of the rural areas." Mencken attacked "yokel" farmers as "simian" and the source of, as Hilfer says, a "husbandry tyranny" over the nation. Mencken was voicing a "well-worn vocabulary of condescension" among intellectuals that included "bumpkin, hick, yokel, hayseed, clodhopper." Mencken belongs to "the 'revolt from the village' writers" and remains a valuable voice, as one New Yorker critic recently noted, because of "his campaign against provincialism." In addition to having a broad impact on the intellectuals of the era, Mencken was, more specifically, a "central influence" on purported revolt books such as Sinclair Lewis's Main Street. Although the themes of the revolt thesis and Mencken's attacks could be applied generally, the focus came to be on the American small town, which, Hilfer says, was "nicely adaptable" for articulating criticisms of repressiveness and conformity. In Van Doren's formulation, the "villages of the Middle West" were particularly threatening because their "provincialism" could spread and thus present a wider danger.

The intellectual heft of Brooks and the polemical firepower provided by Mencken's more popular media platforms gave voice to a broad intellectual attack on the alleged provincialism of American culture and were thought to signal and justify new literary themes. As Van Doren explained in his influential essay, it was crucial that intellectuals transcend and undermine an existing "cult of the village," or the ongoing respect for the traditions of small-town and rural life that persisted from the nineteenth century. Broadly speaking, Brooks, Mencken, and Van Doren were seeking to undermine and overcome the persisting customs and values of nineteenth-century Victorian culture. The village revolt thesis both fueled and was bolstered by criticism of Victorian culture and thus was launched at a propitious time for its adoption and perpetuation. The purveyors of the revolt thesis found strong allies among the critics of Victorianism generally and, more specifically, among those who embraced the vogue of literary modernism.

Victorianism, as Daniel Joseph Singal explains, was the "culture against which the early Modernists rebelled." Victorianism's American reign roughly stretched from the 1830s to the early twentieth century, and its "guiding ethos was centered upon the classic bourgeois values of thrift, diligence, and persistence and a recognition of the value of standards learned through education, religion, and manners that created a separation between stable communities and savagery." Victorian ideals were especially strong in the rural areas and small towns of the Midwest, leaving the region vulnerable to the criticisms of the literary modernists. If the decade prior to World War I was seen as the "last age of innocence," it was "a time in which simplicity and moral idealism still reigned supreme in the small towns and midwestern farmhouses." Even as it began to erode in other areas, Victorian culture still lived on in small cities and towns and in the rural areas. Citing the rural sociology literature of the 1920s, the historian James Shideler explained how rural people were "conservative and tradition-minded" and "rested patiently on a conventional certainty about good and evil, with staunch adherence to the values of hard work, thrift, and self-denial." The famed Dr. Kennicott of Main Street, for example, adhered to the Victorian code of honest labor, moral uplift, community service, and patriotism. It was these Victorian beliefs and cultural norms that came under assault, as Stanley Coben explains, by a "growing subculture of alienated intellectuals" that would form the basis of support for the village revolt thesis and contribute to what Paul Gorman deems the project of "breaking up the Victorian moral and cultural synthesis." The revolt thesis, Barry Gross concluded, was invented and perpetuated by intellectuals "who themselves wanted to see the village revolted from, who were convinced that provincial life, especially in the Middle West, condemned America to the status of second-class culture."


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: The Promise of Midwestern Regionalism 1

Chapter 1 The Myth of the Midwestern "Revolt from the Village" 11

Chapter 2 The Failed Revolt Against the Revolt 37

Chapter 3 The Decline of Midwestern History 69

Conclusion: Against Subordination, Toward Revival 101

Notes 111

Index 247

What People are Saying About This

John Mack Faragher

“In this lucid appraisal, Jon Lauck chronicles the silencing of the ‘rooted voices from the solid center’ of the nation, the American Midwest. A discerning intellectual history of the demise of regionalism in American letters, as well as an impassioned argument for the importance of local attachments in a global age.”

Marilynne Robinson

“During the first years of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1918 to 1929, eight of eleven of the writers honored were Midwesterners. One, Booth Tarkington, won twice. Jon Lauck documents the response of major Eastern critics of the period to this extraordinary cultural flowering—that it was all an attack on the barrenness of the culture of the Midwest. The consensus that formed around their view of this vast region persists, to the detriment of American history as a whole. Lauck has done valuable work in exposing the origins of an extraordinarily potent cliche.”

Tom Brokaw

From Warm Center to Ragged Edge is a long overdue defense and celebration of midwestern literature, culture, and history against the starchy criticism of eastern elites. Jon Lauck has produced a robust and scholarly work that made me want to cheer again the enduring prose of Sinclair Lewis, the informed defense of Stuart Pratt Sherman, and the timeless portrait of Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson. My own prairie roots have served me well in the intellectual and concrete canyons of the eastern seaboard and it is good to be reminded why.”

Stephen Aron

“Jon Lauck’s learned survey of midwestern regionalism rebuts strident critics, recovers forgotten voices, and revitalizes our appreciation for regionalist perspectives. Read this book to engage with the midwestern past and to imagine a new midwestern history.”

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