Wednesday, January 31, 2007

On The Eighth Day God Made Sweet Tea

I am pleased to announce that I have finally read me some Clyde Edgerton. It was only a short story so I'm not sure if it really counts, but DAMN it was good.

Since most of my readers are from lame-ass places like the midwest, you probably don't know much more about Clyde Edgerton than I did last summer when a customer in the bookstore asked me to look up one of his books for her. I couldn't find it so I said to
Bookstore Meaghan, "Hey, do you know [whatever the hell the title was] by Clyde EdGarton?" "Edgerton?" Meaghan corrected me with a raised eyebrow. "Whatever. I'm dyslexic," I explained. But Meaghan looked at me like she knew I was lying and, with a great deal of concern, asked, "You HAVE read him, right?" "Um, no," I admitted, ashamed. "My GOD, girl, how'd you get out of school without reading Edgerton?!" Meaghan laughed.

I'm not sure, actually. Perhaps because my parents moved me from southeastern Virginia to the dreaded northern portion of Virginia while my education was still in progress. But still. I've managed to read almost every other Southern writer mentioned on
Wikipedia's Southern literature page, and even a bunch who aren't listed (helloooo? Tony Earley? David Payne? Alice freakin' Walker?!).

So I read and enjoyed Clyde Edgerton and I got to thinking about regional literature. If I went into a bookstore in Chicago, could I easily locate the Southern literature section? Or would they have a similar section for midwestern literature? (And, sidebar, why do I feel compelled to capitalize "Southern" while poor "midwestern" gets the shaft?) Is there even such a thing as midwestern literature and, if so, what the hell is it about? If I read a work of midwestern literature would I recognize it as such? Are other regions of the country just as distinctive -- in their own ways -- as the American South?

As it turns out, there IS such a thing as midwestern literature. I googled it, and then I clicked on a few links and tried to figure out who speaks for the midwest and what defines midwestern literature. And I couldn't.

The midwest claims Toni Morrison and Mark Twain -- both of whom I thought of as Southern writers despite the fact that neither are from the South -- and Charles Baxter, whose The Feast of Love I, well, loved. But other than that, midwestern literature seems to be written by authors I've never heard of (okay, I'm a book person -- I've HEARD of Saul Bellow and Sinclair Lewis, I've just never been interested in READING them) about themes I can't relate to.

Virginia is no longer really considered part of the South (even if it WAS the capital of the Confederacy) and I'd hardly call myself a Southerner, but the more I thought about my understanding of Southern literature vs. my understanding of midwestern literature, the more I was struck by how profoundly I've been shaped by where I live. I don't talk all that funny, but I can't begin to comprehend the concept of unsweetened iced tea, and I was 16 before it occurred to me that the Civil War might actually HAVE been about slavery. The thought of a summer without peaches makes me want to cry.

Do people in other regions of the country have a similar sense of place? Did I totally miss it when I read The Feast of Love for the love rather than for the Michigan-ness? And is it possible to develop as deep an affection for another region of the country (one with snow and ICICLES, no less) as for the region you've lived in for the past 25 years?

21 comments:

Flannery Alden said...

I think you and Big Orange need to have a chat about this. He is a transplanted Midwesterner and I think he probably has a list of books as long as the Mason-Dixon Line written by Midwestern authors. He will also provide you with hundreds of reasons why they are distinctive and wonderful.

But if I were you, I'd start either reading to or, more preferably, listening to some Garrison Keillor. Get some audio tapes of "Tales from Lake Woebegone". They are warm stories of a very cold small town in Minnesota. It will probably make you fall in love with the midwest and the frozen tundra contained within.

lulu said...

I was about to suggest Garrison Keillor as well, even though I think he is a little precious. Give me a little time and I can make you a list of important Midwestern books. (Midwestern is capitalized because it is referring to a specific place, just as Southern is.)

In answer to your question, yes. I feel a connection with books from or about the Midwest, even though I didn't grow up on a farm or live in a small town. I think some of the things that define Midwestern writing include an emphasis on common sense and hard work, a sense of community, a respect for the individual, and a sort of reverse snobbery towards people who view themselves as more sophisticated than we are.

I’ll make you a list.

lulu said...

BTW, I would consider Gatsby be to one of the classic Midwestern novels.

Phil said...

As far as feeling a sense of place, I'd say, yes, I do. I've lived in central Illinois (a charming town called, Normal), Key West, Los Angeles, Chicago and it's suburbs. The suburbs are my home, and that's why the Wife and I choose to raise the kids here. For more cultural info on Chicago suburbs view the John Hughes movies from the '80's.

Hemingway is a Midwestern writer, specifically his Nick Adams stories. Sam Sheperd's (playwright) work is largely about the midwest. See Buried Child, or Curse Of The Starving Class, for the best examples. For poetry, Carl Sandburg is a good example of Midwestern writing.

David Foster Wallace taught at my college (in Normal)for a time, I haven't read anything but Infinite Jest, but he could have Midwestern influences.

Joe Meno is a modern Chicago writer, who writes of growing up on the Southside. Check out Hairstyles Of The Damned.

Wilco, who I think you enjoy, is a Chicago/Midwestern band.

Do you find a Midwestern style in the blogs you read by Midwesterners?

vikkitikkitavi said...

Hello, Willa Cather!

Melissa said...

I've never heard of Edgerton, and I grew up in the South, so don't feel bad. Neither one of us is an ignorant, uneducated fool, or so I am told.

I definitely feel shaped by having grown up in the deep south (Mississippi, Alabama, north Florida) and there are things that exist for me (sweetened ice tea and cheese grits being two of them) that I am so grateful to have experienced as a child. I have met people who have never even heard of some of our Southern traditions/staples and I am always amazed that their lives weren't as affected by them as my own.

That said, I now live in NYC, and I love it for all the things it gives me that the South can't, like Ethiopian food and guacamole made fresh at the table. Thankfully, I can make my own tea and grits!

Charm School Reject said...

I'm a half breed I guess. Grew up [mostly] in Chicago Suburbs but spent every summer with my family in Tennessee and North Carolina. Both of my parents were born and raised in Tennessee.

Unsweetened Tea is blasphemous.
I can't get through a winter morning without grits. Fresh fruit is the only way to go. And, yes, tomatoes with salt and gravy is a breakfast food.

I know this didn't have crap to do with regional authors but I got kinda side-tracked with the food thing.

Anon. Blogger said...

On the question of the possibility of deep affection for another region - yes, you definitely can develop deep affection for another region as much as the one you lived in for 25 years. It is a state of mind and the willingness and ability to deal with change.

Each locale has its own things to appreciate. The trick is to embrace those things, i.e., embrace the new. I still miss sweet corn, blueberries and tomatoes from the midwest. From the Northeast I miss fresh picked fruit from the orchards - cherries, peaches, pears, apples - everything was nearby. I loved the weather in Denver. The snow was so dry and the recreation and beauty in the mountains were beyond compare. Here in the desert I love the smell of the creosote when it rains, the almost constant sunshine, the mountains all around on the horizon.

The people in each region have their own ways, as well. I won't comment specifically because I wouldn't want to be misinterpreted. Basically, if you believe that people being different that you is o.k. (not wrong), then you can learn to appreciate them for their differences. "When in Rome..."

It's about having the desire and skills to deal with change, and there's lots to read on that!

Anon. Blogger said...

oops, different THAN you...

Megan said...

Flannery & Lu - I tried Garrison Keillor once and it didn't take, but I'll give him another shot.

Phil - Not only am I a Wilco fan, I wouldn't want to be stranded on a deserted island without the Nick Adams stories. I've just never thought of either as particularly Midwestern (fine, Lulu, I'll capitalize it). Because I don't know what being Midwestern is all about, I can't detect Midwestern-ness in y'all's blogs, or Gatsby, or Hemingway, or anything else I guess.

Vikki - Right, Willa Cather! I've read her. Ugh.

Melissa & CSR - Funny how much our associations with places have to do with food.

AB - I think of myself as a pretty accepting person (jokes about the Midwest being a lame-ass place aside) and I'm sure I could develop an affection for another part of the country. I think I'm just afraid I wouldn't be me somewhere else, which is probably silly.

Meaghan said...

do i really sound like that?

Megan said...

Perhaps I didn't convey the friendly banter-ness of the conversation?

Anon. Blogger said...

I don't think that's silly at all!!! It's part of dealing with the prospect of change. That 'When in Rome...' thing is a bit tricky, actually. I have studied how people deal with change because of what I do / did for a living, so it is a subject near and dear to me - facinates me actually.

And as a midwesterner myself - we're lame ass, no getting around that, you're dead on! :-)

Oh, and icicles suck. My ex husband used to joke that killing someone by stabbing them with an icicle was the perfect crime... I'm glad we live in separate states now and there are no icicles when he visits .... but I digress.... I'm totally in to friendly banter, too!! :)

Phil said...

I'd agree with Anon., this country has a long history of people arriving here and struggling with that very thing. Losing their culture, rejecting their culture, building a new culture.

You'll be giving all that wonderful literature a whole new context.

And...learning what we mean when we ask for a, 'pop.'

vikkitikkitavi said...

I forgot Booth Tarkington! Dreamy!

Flannery Alden said...

Bill Bryson is better than Garrison Keillor. Try him first.

Megan said...

AB - Up until a few years ago, I absolutely ABHORRED change, so there's a lot of growth here even though I may seem like a chicken-shit.

Phil - You mean you want someone to smack you upside your head, right?

Vikki - Is that a real person? Sounds like a fake name, but I'll look him up.

Flannery - I've read Bryson, actually. See? I DO know Midwestern literature. I just thought it was all literature with universal appeal while Southern lit had regional appeal.

lulu said...

Midwestern literature probably does have universal appeal, but so does Southern literature. I think of Southern lit as "Put your crazy out on the porch and let him rock" lit, and do someone who is repressed and Midwestern, that has a certain amount of appeal, although we would never do it.

vikkitikkitavi said...

RE: Booth Tarkington

See how we Hoosiers get no respect? Fucking Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and shit.

It's not like we're all just dripping with them like you are.

Seriously, you've probably heard of The Magnificent Ambersons. The novel is even better than the movie.

Tenacious S said...

Megan, I do have a very strong sense of belonging here in the Midwest. Twice in my life I have left for other regions. I spent two years in South Carolina, where I walked too fast, talked too fast, and was shocked by some of the OPENLY backward views regarding race. Horrified might be the better word to use. Later, I lived in both Southern and Northern California, both unique. I was too simple to live there. Yes, I think where you grow up shapes your character in many ways. Even when I didn't live here, I was a Midwesterner, specifically a Chicagoan. Funny, I just posted about this very subject, although in a much more brief manner.

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