Best Novels on the Midwest: From Franzen to
Why does the literature of the Midwest not get the attention it deserves? The creation of a Kurt Vonnegut library spurred Anna Clark to come up with 13 essential novels of that mythic region.
Last week was a good one for Kurt Vonnegut. A posthumous collection of stories came out— While Mortals Sleep, which includes 16 previously unpublished tales and a foreword by Dave Eggers that describes Vonnegut as the “hippie Mark Twain.” As well, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in downtown Indianapolis celebrated its grand opening in the author’s hometown this past Saturday. Vonnegut’s drawings will be on display, as well as his typewriter, his rejection letters, his Purple Heart medal, and an evocative unopened letter from his father. The library will make its case to the world that the Midwest is an essential part of the legendary writer’s story. Vonnegut (who died in 2007) said as much himself in a 1986 speech: “All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.”
If you didn’t know that Vonnegut had so much as sneezed in Indiana, let alone was raised there, it’s not surprising. Just as cultural discourse has a tendency to eviscerate the Midwesternness of literary legends of the past, so it does with today’s leading authors. Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is still a top seller and Franzen himself is a perennial contender for “Best American Novelist.” Freedom is set in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Franzen is a native of a St. Louis suburb. But as talked-about, reviewed, and described as Franzen is, his connection to the canon of Midwestern literature remains subdued. The fact is, while writers from other areas of the U.S. are typically discussed in context of their native landscape, writers from the Midwest, strangely, are not—even when their fiction spotlights the region.
There are Southern Gothic tales, Westerns, New York stories, and plenty of novels about Boston, California, and even Washington, D.C. But what of the fiction native to the center of America? Alas, even passionate readers might draw a blank about literature that’s emerged from this overlooked, but nonetheless mythic, landscape.
It’s time to bring cohesion to a brimming, almost unwieldy, tradition. What follows is a list of standout books that are among the greatest to emerge from the Midwest. This is by no means a comprehensive collection, nor an enumerated ranking of the “best,” but rather, it’s a set of contemporary and classic fiction that is unified in its sense of place in the mythic Midwest.
1. Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
With its heels dug deep into small-town life, Winesburg, Ohio, is buoyed by an eclectic cast of characters—among them an agnostic, a drunkard, a reverend, a spinster, and a schoolteacher. Anderson’s story cycle centers the life of George Willard, with the narration becoming more complex as Willard himself evolves from childhood into independence. Writers ranging from Ray Bradbury to Eudora Welty to Amos Oz have credited this classic text as an influence. Anderson grew up in Clyde, Ohio, and later lived in Chicago, where he joined a literary community anchored by Carl Sandburg and Theodore Dreiser
2. American Salvage, by Bonnie Jo Campbell
In these stories, Campbell fixates on the rural landscapes of southwest Michigan. She fuses the sacred and the profane in tales that bear the whiff of myth about them. The militia men, the dreamers, the hunters, the underemployed custodians, the farmers, the lonely hearted bigots, the lovers of wilderness and gardens and animals, the protective parents, the meth addicts, the young teens with old souls: These stories shake in the bones. One reads feeling as if we, like the characters peopling a post-industrial land, are on the edge—a way of life ended, or begun; the ground quaking beneath our feet. American Salvage was a fiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award and National Book Critics’ Circle award. Campbell lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
3. Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser
It’s a classic story: Country girl goes to the big city—in this case Chicago—to make her fortune. Carrie is 18 when she leaves her family home in rural Wisconsin to move in with her sister and her husband. After toiling in a shoe factory to raise her share of the rent, Carrie finds alternative ways of making a living: being a mistress, to wealthy men and, later, working her way toward fame as a stage actress. Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, and later began his journalism career in Chicago.
4. The Coast of Chicago, by Stuart Dybek
Dybek, praised for elevating the grit and tumble of Chicago’s South Side in his short stories, is often compared to other great Windy City writers like Saul Bellow and Nelson Algren. But Dybek’s work is set apart by its extraordinary juxtaposition of ground-level realism against the fantastic. In these 14 mystical tales, young men try to find a girl frozen in a block of ice by her father, a kiss transverses the cityscape, and Chopin’s music billows up a tenement airshaft. A Chicago native, Dybek is a past winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant. He teaches at Northwestern University and lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
5. Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich
Intertwining storylines follow 60 years in the lives of two Ojibwa families, the Kashpaws and the Lamartines, living on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota. This poetic novel is vast in thematic scope, looking baldly and even with humor at how religion, romance, death, cultural identity, and a natural world of enormous power collectively unsettle our expectations for a life well lived. Born in Minnesota, Erdrich still lives in her home state, where she owns the independent shop, BirchBark Books & Native Arts.
6. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
This Oprah-approved, Pulitzer-winning novel follows Cal, the intersexed narrator of Greek descent who grows up in Detroit in the 1960s and ‘70s. Middlesex is a sprawling and exuberant multigenerational saga that explores gender identity alongside explosive race and ethnic dynamics, including the 1967 riot in Detroit (locally dubbed "the rebellion"). A busy novel that draws from Greek mythology, Middlesex also finds Cal’s grandmother working for the Nation of Islam and Cal in a relationship with someone called Obscure Object (referencing the film That Obscure Object of Desire). Like Cal, this is a novel that refuses to be pigeonholed, that is neither this nor that. Eugenides is a Detroit native.
7. Eden Springs, by Laura Kasischke
Kasischke brings an imaginative spin to one of the strangest of true stories. In the early 20th century, a utopian community called the House of David chose the lush land of Benton Harbor, Michigan, to build a gracious village and await an eternal life lived not in the spirit, but in the flesh. The community was trademarked by its famed amusement park, semi-pro baseball team, uncut hair, white clothing, and the handsome, charismatic founder. This novella situates itself shortly before scandal breaks. Built like a collage—photos, legal documents, court testimony, and news clippings sit aside fictional vignettes— Eden Springs manages to evoke both suspense and prophecy. Kasischke, who is also a poet, lives in Chelsea, Michigan.
8. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
The first novel by America’s only living Nobel laureate is set in Lorain, Ohio—Morrison’s hometown—shortly after the Great Depression. We meet 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove who prays for her eyes to turn blue, so that people, for once, will look at her. Told in richly concise language, this is a novel of children overwhelmed by American myths, the crushing power of language, and the dangerous cocktail of striving, self-loathing, and beauty. Morrison’s novel has endured numerous bans in schools and libraries.
9. them, by Joyce Carol Oates
Believe it: There was a time when the prolific Oates had only three books to her name—and that third novel was the dark, moody them. Part of The Wonderland Quartet series, them follows a post-war family living on the brink in Detroit from the 1930s to the 1960s. Loretta, a dreamy young mother, is chasing dignity with increasing desperation. Her son Jules quits school, hops jobs, and believes he’s found escape with his wealthy girlfriend. Maureen, her daughter, finds refuge in Jane Austen novels at the library until an older man offers her a different arrangement. them won the National Book Award. Oates attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lived in Detroit in the 1960s.
10. Driftless, by David Rhodes
The fictional town of Words, Wisconsin, takes center stage in the first novel published by the acclaimed Rhodes in more than 30 years, a long silence cued by a motorcycle accident that left Rhodes paralyzed from the chest down. In Driftless, he roars back to literary life. Only a few hundred people call Words home, but as Rhodes moves among the perspectives of a handful of the fiercest local personalities, the small enclave becomes as large as a galaxy. There is the couple on a dairy farm that face high stakes when they discover corruption, a furious paraplegic that has a surprising adventure, and a Quaker pastor that struggles with intimate connection. As well, there is a country singer, a former drifter, a mourning widower, and, lurking through it all, a cougar. Rhodes, who was born in Iowa, lives in Wonewoc, Wisconsin.
11. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
Robinson’s novel is told in the voice of an aging pastor in Gilead, Iowa, in 1956 who is writing to the young son that he will not see grow up. Published two decades after Robinson’s much-heralded debut novel, Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize. Its prose manages to be both otherworldly and plainspoken. The story stretches back to the Civil War, when the narrator’s grandfather fought a violent guerrilla battle for abolition, while his son—the narrator’s father—moved toward fierce Christian pacifism. Robinson lives in Iowa and teaches at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
12. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
While The Jungle is remembered for revealing deplorable food-safety conditions in the meatpacking industry, Sinclair intended it to be another kind of expose: that of the plight of immigrants in America who face impoverishment, discrimination, corruption, and wage slavery. Alas, the public was outraged more by the origins of their meat than the welfare of the people who handled it. Sinclair’s novel was informed by nearly two months of undercover investigative work in Chicago’s stockyards and was first published as a serial in a socialist magazine. Public outcry incited by the novel led to federal passage of two key food-safety acts and the formation what would become the Food & Drug Administration.
13. Native Son, by Richard Wright
Bigger Thomas—20-years-old and living in Chicago’s South Side in the 1930s—is the legendary protagonist of Wright’s most famous novel. The wayward Bigger is hired by a wealthy white family and, in a moment of panic, kills the family’s daughter. As Bigger gets tangled up in courtroom drama, Wright spins a story that loudly protests racism not so much as an individual act, but a systemic problem that breeds hopelessness. Wright was born in Mississippi and moved to Chicago in 1927, where he joined the Communist Party and chaired the South Side Writers’ Club.
Anna Clark is a 2010 fellow with the Peter Jennings Center for Journalists and the Constitution. Her writing has appeared in The American Prospect, Salon, The Nation, UTNE Reader, among many others. She has been awarded a Fulbright fellowship in creative writing and will be headed to Nairobi, Kenya, in 2011. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan's Residential College and Warren Wilson College's MFA Program for Writers.