From Literary Hub:
When they ask, I tell people that I’m from the Midwest. Indiana, I’ll say with a playful, nasal intonation if badgered further, though I don’t typically expect a follow-up question. Only on the rare occasions when explicitly asked “but what city?” will I offer up my hometown: Fort Wayne, which I describe as a small place where “there’s not too much,” despite it being the second largest city in the state. I’ll say I’ve seen Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but that I don’t love the teasing nature of their implication; I’ll say Fargo is one of my favorite movies, though Indiana and Minnesota aren’t totally the same.
. . . .
But the script is always the same—when people find out that I come from a place known as the Heartland, I know I can expect one of two responses: That I’m so lucky to have escaped such a conservative place, or that people from the Midwest are so nice. Neither of these statements are necessarily false, though neither convince me that the speaker has a nuanced understanding of the region: something that mainstream pop culture and literature have done little to subvert.
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Oversimplifying any part of the United States can be irresponsible and, in some cases, discriminatory, though most regions have come to be defined by certain broad traits: New England is steeped in Puritanism, the Southwest has Spanish-Catholic and Indigenous traditions, and the South is bound by its Confederate past. But then there’s the Midwest, where not even those born and raised in the area can offer up a consistent response as to which states belong and which ones do not. The region is overwhelmingly white, though ethnically heterogeneous; early settlers came not only from surrounding domestic regions, but also Germany, Scandinavia, Ireland, and Poland. There are the major cities likes Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis, but as Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib writes in The Baffler, “the divide between its rural and urban constituencies is . . . sharp, [and] ten miles outside of a city there’s often a rural area that feels like an entirely different world.” There is no defining Midwestern accent; the phrase “Midwestern music” is meaningless.
. . . .
Though not the sole factor, the dearth of nuanced understanding of the Midwest results from its failure to arrive at wholly truthful or enduring cultural distinction. In a 1998 essay titled “The Heartland’s Role in US Culture: It’s Main Street,” University of Kansas professor James R. Shortridge traces the region’s relative undefinability, starting with the first geographical reference of the “Middle West” in the 1880s. at the time, the phrase referred only to Kansas and Nebraska, and by nature of its small scope, the cultural tropes and mannerisms associated with the region were more universal: the people there were kind and moral, idealists; they were pragmatic and hard-working, but also humble. It was very Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series based on her childhood in the Midwest during the 1870s and 1880s—happiness is a piece of maple candy, manual labor is an integral part of your character.
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But by the turn of the century, “the Midwest was America,” Shortridge writes, as multiple industries in the region (notably Detroit’s automobile industry) were proof of industrialization’s success, and immigrants were finding opportunities in states that were thought to know the meaning of hard work. However, it was this very industrialization that would cause the heart of the country to suffer its first crisis of identity. The urbanization of cities like Chicago and Detroit did not coincide with the area’s reputation for Christian morality, pastoralism, and agriculture. And, at least colloquially, many people within the region attempted to disassociate themselves from what they saw as centers of depravity, which is reflected in what we today consider “Midwestern.” As Athitakis said, “We change both the borders and the definition of Midwest to accommodate the visions most close to religion and the nuclear family.”
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Over the past 20 years, Atihtakis argues, a good handful of writers have sought to drill into the “hearty, churchy, white-bread vision” of the region that’s been projected through literature popular culture. But a specific region or issue must first become newly relevant for it to merit such a meditation. Athitakis brings up Detroit, a city crippled by decades of white flight, falling home prices, and the collapse of the automobile industry, which left it in an exceptionally poor state after the Great Recession. In 2013, Detroit filed the largest municipal bankruptcy case in US history and quickly became the national media’s favorite example of economic collapse and urban struggle. It was only after this, Athitakis says, that people outside of the region were ready to read about the Motor City.
Link to the rest at Literary Hub
Although he doesn’t live there any more, PG has spent quite a lot of time in the Midwest. For him, it doesn’t really seem to be one region culturally.
For example, Chicago and Minneapolis are much different cities. PG has lived in and enjoyed both cities and, for him, they are more distinct than Boston and New York.
Chicago was largely settled by Poles, Irish, Germans and Italians while Minneapolis was settled by Swedes, Norwegians and a smaller number of Germans. At the turn of the 20th century, Chicago was the third largest Czech city in the world after Prague and Vienna.
During the first half of the twentieth century, large numbers of African-Americans migrated north to settle in Chicago, where there were lots of jobs, but few traveled further north to Minneapolis. During the 1920’s and 30’s, Chicago had blues, jazz, nightclubs and Al Capone. Minneapolis had General Mills and Pillsbury.
Even within Midwestern states, generally much larger geographically than Eastern states, there are significant differences. Northern Missouri is a different place than southern Missouri. Western Nebraska is not much like eastern Nebraska geographically or culturally.
As PG thought about the OP, it occurred to him that it might be useful to think of the Midwest the same way he thinks about Western Europe.
Obviously, the Midwest doesn’t have different languages (although Minneapolis and Chicago had distinctly different accents when PG lived there), but no one seems to worry about the defining characteristics of the Western European arts as opposed to German, French, British, etc., arts.
PG says let Iowa be Iowa. Don’t try to shoehorn it into the Midwest.