Nice and normal in the heartland

Phil Christman explores the idea of the Midwest.

Is Tennessee in the Midwest? Phil Christman’s wild ride through the region’s past, present, and future includes a reflection on what we could possibly mean by the term itself. Which west is it in the midst of? Whose west defined the term? One of the writers who first claimed the expression truly did mean Tennessee.

It took awhile, Christman writes, but by the early 1900s, Midwest came to mean what it means now: “a huge, vague region stretching from somewhere around Buf­falo or Pittsburgh to the Great Plains-Except-Probably-Not-Montana-or-Wyoming-Sorry.” As a term, Midwest could not be more imprecise or strange. But what about the region?

It is, Christman says, a region rife with stereotypes about normalcy, niceness, heartlands, and mediocrity. It also carries a great deal of American ideology about the frontier, native peoples, and the meanings and opportunities carried by land. The Midwest is a place in crisis—economic, cultural, ecological—a crisis it has yet to face in any substantial way.